Know your GM crops

Environment Directorate

Genetically engineered crops are no longer an idea of the future, but have well and truly arrived. Crops like maize, soybean, rapeseed and cotton are being approved for commercial use in an increasing number of countries.

During the period from 1996 to 2003, there was a forty-fold increase in the area grown with transgenic crops worldwide, reaching 67.7 million hectares in 2003 (see graph). This is quite a change since the first transgenic crops became commercially available in the mid-1990s. The trend seems set to continue, given the large range of genetically engineered crops that are known to be in research and development

Although two thirds of the transgenic crop area worldwide was found in developed countries in 2003, this was concentrated in only six: the US grew 63% of the world total, followed by Argentina (21%), Canada (6%), Brazil (4%), China (4%) and South Africa (1%). Most of this area was devoted to soybeans (61%), maize (23%), cotton (11%) and rapeseeds (5%). So far, most commercialisation has focused on these crops, and has involved two traits: insect resistance and herbicide tolerance.

It is no secret that some people (and countries) are concerned about the safety of these products, which can explain some of the slow uptake in many countries. So it is important for governments to ensure that good quality safety information is made publicly available.

Typically, an approval for the commercial use of a genetically engineered crop – whether for planting and growing in agriculture or for use in human food or animal feed – follows a safety assessment by national authorities and the results are very often publicly available, typically through web sites. There is a large amount of information on the safety of those genetically engineered crops which are in commercial use. One such source is the OECD’s Product Database at which includes many links to the web sites of national authorities.

Confusion can arise when different national authorities share information on the same genetically engineered crop because different names or descriptions can be used for the same product, say, a particular maize or cotton. To avoid this problem, we have published guidance for developing “unique identifiers” for transgenic plants based on the work of the OECD’s Working Group on the Harmonisation of Regulatory Oversight in Biotechnology. Think of these unique identifiers as ISBN numbers for books and magazines. They are nine-digit alphanumeric codes that are given to each new transgenic (or genetically engineered) plant that is approved for commercial use. So, for instance, a GM maize developed by Monsanto to be resistant to insect pests has a unique identifier of MON-ØØ810-6, while DD-Ø1951A-7 denotes a cotton developed by DuPont.

The guidance has been designed so that developers of a new transgenic product can generate the identifier. Once approved, national authorities can then forward the unique identifier to us for inclusion in the OECD’s database.

It is clear that the guidance works in practice and OECD countries are using it. The EU recently adopted the OECD guidance as its system for generating unique identifiers through a specific commission regulation. The guidance has also been recognised as a mechanism for unique identification to be used within the context of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which is an international agreement covering such products. The OECD has been forwarding unique identifiers to the Biosafety Clearing House ( which is a key part of the Protocol.

The system works well for genetically engineered crops. Still, in this fast moving discipline, it is important to keep pace with technological demands, and we are considering how the identifier tool can be extended to applications other than crops, such as micro-organisms and animals. Thanks to identifiers, all stakeholders, including the public, will be able to access solid and reliable information when making their judgements about safety.


James, C. (2003), “Global Status of Commercialised Transgenic Crops: 2003”, ISAAA Briefs, No. 30, ISAAA, Ithaca, NY:

©OECD Observer No 243, May 2004

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