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March 12, 2008

Nature of biotech crops debate makes the truth elusive

The debate over biotech crops is a constantly moving argument: each country, each crop, each new genetically altered strain of corn or bean or cotton offers a fresh battleground for biotech champions and critics.

Interviews with leading figures on both sides of the debate illustrate the extent to which the views differ, leaving the truth about biotech crops -- good or bad or a bit of both -- hard to determine.

For Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety and a lawyer who helped successfully derail biotech alfalfa last year, opponents are gaining ground. He takes pride in the fact that critics parlayed environmental concerns and trade-related arguments into the end of biotech wheat research and a court-ordered ban on the planting of biotech alfalfa. He cites as progress slowed development of biotech rice and a new lawsuit seeking to block a biotech sugar beet. And he takes heart from the fact that many countries have shown reluctance to support cultivation of biotech crops for food. Of all the biotech crops grown worldwide, more than 80 percent are planted in only three countries: The United States, Argentina and Brazil.

Kimbrell said that, although biotech companies promise genetic engineering can offer a range of benefits to consumers, the vast majority of the technology to date is focused on crops that can endure increased chemical treatments or make their own insecticides but cause a range of environmental damage.

"As far as genetic engineering for food, that is the great experiment that has failed," Kimbrell said. "They literally have the entire world market against them. All those dreams... the blind will see, the lame will walk... has turned out to be science fiction. They are basically chemical companies selling more chemicals. They've been able to spread these herbicide-promoting plants around because it is more convenient for farmers who can just mass-spray their crops. But they've given absolutely nothing to the consumer while causing more chemical pollution and contamination."

Paul Schickler, president of DuPont's Pioneer Hi-Bred International agricultural unit, has a decidedly different view. "We continue to make strides in additional products and additional markets opening up and additional acceptance of the technology," he said.

He cited recent moves by Brazil to approve a biotech corn for food use and said Argentina is moving forward to approve a new biotech corn engineered for both insect protection and herbicide tolerance. Schickler also pointed to improving receptiveness in South Africa, and said Thailand was moving closer to removing a 2001 ban on field testing for agricultural biotech products. Schickler said acceptance has also grown in the European Union where eight countries planted biotech crops in 2007.

"The technology is proven to be not only effective but to be safe. There is more understanding of the benefits, both in productivity and reduced uses of pesticides and improved quality and in a reduced environmental footprint," Schickler said. "As demand continues to increase for feed, food, fiber, fuel and materials from plant-based products, that necessity for increased productivity is more important today than it has been historically."

Schickler said questions about the safety of such products were invalid. "This is one of the most tested product introductions that there has ever been. It is reviewed and moves through regulatory processes that are proven ... there has not been one example of a impact to the environment or health as a result of the science," he said.

The Guardian

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