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March 16, 2008

Rising food prices may soften opposition to GM crops

Rising food prices are leading to growing calls for increased consumption of genetically modified foods.

“With increasing food prices globally, the benefits of biotech crops have never been more important,” said Clive James, author of a report released recently by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), a non-profit organisation that promotes the technology in the developing world.

Genetically modified (GM) crops covered 114.3 million hectares at the end of 2007, an increase of 12 per cent over the prior year, according to ISAAA. Much of the area is sown with GM cotton or crops for non-food uses like animal feed.

But with global stocks of wheat and other cereals at all time lows, ISAAA expects many governments to look with new interest at the potential for GM crops to boost food supplies and ease price pressure. Biotech seeds produce higher yields than conventional seeds and insect-resistant varieties require less pesticide, thereby reducing costs, claims the GM industry.

Rising prices have already led to policy changes in one major cereals importer. South Korea announced last month that it will buy genetically modified maize for food use for the first time in order to keep food costs down.

A quarter of the world’s maize is now genetically modified, making it increasingly difficult and more expensive to source non-GM maize. The non-GM variant costs around $50 more per tonne.

“Even if you have the money to pay for it, there is a lack of non-GM crops around,” says Dr Randy Hautea, ISAAA global coordinator in Manila.ISAAA says the strong increase in planting and testing of GM food crops shows growing acceptance of the technology and evidence of its success.

In South Africa, the land planted with genetically modified crops increased by 30 per cent last year, with white maize accounting for most of the increase. Two thirds of the white maize area is now sown with biotech.

“That is directly related to internal demand for food availability because white maize is not really traded,” said Dr Hautea. But Geert Ritsema, campaigner at environmental group Greenpeace, argues that South Africa is an exception in the developing world. “The government has provided farmers with subsidies. It has nothing to do with increasing yields.”

Greenpeace and other groups say first generation GM crops increase the need for pesticides but do not lead to higher yields. They cite a 2003 study published in the journal Science, which found that average yields of GM crops in the United States and Argentina were “negligible and in some cases even slightly negative.”

Ritsema claims the GM industry is taking an “opportunistic” approach to rising food prices. “The root of the problem is biofuels and the solution is not GMOs but alternatives to high fuel prices.” Currently South Africa is the only African country to have approved GM crops but that could change this year.

Burkina Faso is doing field trials on biotech cotton while Egypt has just completed trials on biotech maize, announcing a 30 per cent increase in productivity over conventional crops. The positive results are likely to lead to commercialisation of the maize, says Dr Hautea. Both China and India, with the world’s biggest populations, are also trialling genetically modified foods.

Approval of India’s first GM food crop, eggplant, is at the penultimate step.

China has already approved GM rice but has held back from releasing it on the market. A recent report suggests government may now be more open to commercialising GM rice as it battles high food inflation.

In an interview with Reuters, Huang Jikun, director for the centre for Chinese agricultural policy at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, forecast that “over the next few years, things will move more quickly than in the last few years”.

Greenpeace says there is still strong opposition to GM crops in China and Europe. France has recently extended a temporary ban on growing a GM maize citing concerns over risks to non-target organisms and development of resistance to toxins by the target organisms.

Friends of the Earth claims that use of biotech crops engineered to tolerate Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide has led to large increases in herbicide use, triggering an epidemic of herbicide-resistant weeds in the United States, Argentina and Brazil. Farmers are then forced to use more chemicals to combat them.

But Dr Hautea believes that as food producers pass on rising food prices to consumers, consumer opinion towards GM foods will change.

“If the price differential becomes significant, that could influence consumer behaviour.”

A French study carried out in 2004 demonstrated that consumers are less likely to reject GM foods if they are less expensive than conventional kinds.

So far, 23 countries have approved growing of biotech crops while 29 countries are allowed to import them. The US is the largest exporter of GM crops and seed.

Business Daily Africa

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