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June 08, 2008

Economics of food crisis forcing new look at GM crops

Opposition to genetically modified (GM) foods, still strongest in Europe, is starting to erode in the face of the global food crisis.

But the pressure for change, so far, is more economic than political.

Indeed, it was the political fighting over biofuels, farm subsidies, and trade policies, that threatened to undermine the efforts of 40 world leaders seeking a solution to soaring food costs at a UN summit in Rome that ended Thursday.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) asked governments to provide at least $20 billion a year to revive world agriculture research, to help feed nearly 1 billion hungry people, and to spark a new “green revolution.” But what advocates describe as a promising solution to hunger – GM foods – did not get much play in

Partly this is because genetically modified crops are not regarded as an immediate answer to farming problems in poor regions; partly it is because genetic alteration remains controversial. Europe bans most of the use and growth of crops whose seeds have been modified with genes of other organisms to make them more resilient.

Yet the economics of the food crisis may already be forcing changes in Europe, and in smaller farm nations, experts say. For the first time, Japan and Korea are allowing snack and drink manufacturers to quietly start using GM corn, after prices for non-GM corn doubled last year.

In Europe, growing numbers of farmers and corporations (such as BASF in Germany, which has a genetic potato ready to introduce) are pushing the European Union – including threats of legal action – to ease restrictions on using GM produce.

Legislators in France, Europe’s No. 1 farming nation, nearly came to blows May 22, when a bill to allow GM crops passed by a single vote; yet France will now only allow GM crops once the EU accepts them, a position that has vacillated for years, despite a green light by the EU food safety agency.

Genetically modified foods are commonplace in the US, China, Brazil, and Argentina – in processed foods, oils, and corn syrup. In US farming states, such as Minnesota last year, harvests of GM soybeans and GM corn made up 92 and 86 percent of those crops, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

By comparison, last year GM crops covered less than 1 percent of the farmland in France.

But views of genetic modification vary across Europe. Eurobarometer, a European Commission periodical, said in March that 58 percent of Europeans are opposed to the use of GM crops. But opinion in The Netherlands and Britain is less strident. Some Spanish farms are using engineered seeds. European farmers themselves (like those in Australia recently) are starting to say that tangible profits resulting from GM crops are changing their minds. A recent poll shows Italian farmers are willing to try them. Nor is the US uniformly on board. Wide swaths of land in Maine, Vermont, Oregon, and California are designated as GM-crop-free areas.

US officials and farmers alike express irritation over cases of food aid rejected in hungry African states – by local authorities worried about the contamination of crops by GM grains, making them unfit for sale in lucrative non-GM -food European markets.

South Africa is the only African nation that has approved planting a GM crop, though Burkina Faso may be close to approving a cotton strain, following its widespread use in India, and Egypt is looking at GM maize, according to the Financial Times.

At the summit in Rome, the FAO took no position on genetic modification or GMOs. The organization takes a neutral position allowing choice by each nation. “Traditional farming techniques can close the yield gap between developing and developed nation farming, which is sometimes double,” says FAO spokesman Ali Gurkan. “But new research into GM seeds that have no harmful impact on the environment and strengthen plants in drought areas – this could greatly help.”

The GM dispute, complicated enough at a technical level, goes far deeper than food. It reveals profound clashes over science and culture, and over fundamental views about how to live in and organize the modern world, experts say.

“There’s a deep divide over the role of technology in agriculture, and GMOs are the key,” says an FAO official who was not officially cleared to speak. But he said that when GM and non-GM crops are studied side by side, the GM crops have consistently cost less to produce and brought greater “effective” yields, “which is how much you get after the bugs have stopped chewing on them,” he says.

For advocates, GM crops mean fewer harmful pesticides sprayed on crops, less fertilizer, greater harvest yields, and no ill- health effects. Biotech promises a future of drought resistant crops and cheaper, less vulnerable harvests.

For skeptics, mixing the genes of unlike species is a usurping of nature, the creation of Frankensteins in the food chain, and a concession to giant agribusiness. Genetic manipulation has unknown and untested effects on people and other living things, they argue, and can harm everything from soil and friendly insects to other crops. It also smacks of the blind faith in technology that brought global warming, poisonous rivers, and choking pollution. A UN report in 2005 found that “assessment mechanisms were faulty” in the testing of GMOs.

“GM foods have not lived up to the promises we heard about 10 years ago,” says Helen Holder of Friends of the Earth in Brussels. “They have not alleviated poverty and hunger, and their environmental and health impacts are not understood. In Europe, we will pay more for safe food, and we reject GM.”

In the US, China, and Brazil, there are now roughly two generations of genetically modified crops. The first generation, marketed for a decade, includes most of what is actually grown on mass scale. This includes corn, soy, rapeseed (for canola oil), and cotton. First-generation GM crops consist mostly of plants modified to produce internal toxins that deter the pests that threaten crops, experts say.

The second generation of crops – mostly developed since 2000, in a climate of rising consumer safety fears – are more sophisticated. They involve modifications designed to increase nutrition, the protein, or vitamin content of crops. But few second-generation products have made it out of the lab.

While few scientists will absolutely guarantee the safety of genetic foods, they point out almost no side effects to human health. It is the effects on other plant species – that may be dominated and replaced in the natural world by GM crops – that concern some ecologists.

Most experts contacted favor a balanced, cautious approach. The British journalist and expert Martin Wolf, commenting in a recent Financial Times forum, commented that, “Obviously I am not in favour of ‘careless embrace of GM technology.’ Who could be?

“But I am in favour of careful use of this technology, rather than careless rejection. Equally, I am not claiming that the only choice is between adoption of genetically modified crops and mass starvation…we should use whatever we have.”

Conventional plant breeding alters the genes of a plant or animal by selectively mating an organism with desirable characteristics using a species’ natural reproductive processes. Farmers have used this technique for centuries.

Genetic engineering alters a plant’s genes using techniques that directly insert new genetic material, which may come from another species, into a plant cell to create new or modified traits. Scientists first discovered the technique in 1973 and genetically modified food crops first became commercially available to farmers in the mid-1990s.

Christian Science Monitor

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