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June 08, 2008

GM crops gain grudging acceptance amidst global food crisis

Long derided as "Frankenfoods" by purists, genetically modified crops are gaining some grudging acceptance as a global food crisis prompts the question: How do we feed the world?

The United States still grows the most modified crops, accounting for more than half of last year's plantings. Yet some countries have recently boosted imports of genetically engineered grains. Important agriculture producers such as Australia and India are moving toward cultivating their first genetically modified food crops. China is working on a modified rice.

While taking care not to appear opportunistic in the face of a crisis that has led to food riots, biotechnology advocates are casting genetic engineering as part of the solution to food shortages and price hikes.

"Societies and governments are recognizing that it's a responsible position to take advantage of all technologies that are proven and effective," said Dean Oestreich, chairman of DuPont-owned seed producer Pioneer Hi-Bred International.

DuPont, along with Monsanto Co., Syngenta AG and a handful of other companies, stand to benefit from a wider acceptance of agricultural biotechnology. Pioneer's revenue last year was $3.3 billion, of which $1.6 billion came from the sale of modified seeds.

William Niebur, DuPont's vice president of crop genetics research, said DuPont would work to engineer higher-yielding rice and wheat, a sign the company thinks attitudes are shifting toward two crops in which farmers have resisted genetic modifications in the past.

But the push to plant more modified seeds in more countries still faces considerable opposition from consumers, governments and researchers who say the risks of genetic engineering are still unknown, and the benefits -- after 12 years of commercialization -- have yet to reach consumers.

"What we've seen from this technology, time and again, is that the promises have not been borne out," said Bill Freese, a science policy analyst at the Washington-based Center for Food Safety.

Genetic engineering incorporates genes from other organisms, such as bacteria, to make crops resistant to insects, herbicides and disease. Nearly all genetically modified, or GM, crops grown today are corn, soybeans, canola or cotton.

With the enthusiastic support of the federal government -- and, critics say, a lax regulatory environment -- the U.S. dominates production of GM crops, followed by Argentina, Brazil and Canada. In 2007, 91 percent of U.S. soybeans were genetically modified, along with 73 percent of the corn crop, according to the Department of Agriculture. Most of those crops are fed to animals or processed for use in other foods. Freese estimates that 60 percent to 70 percent of the U.S. food supply contains genetically modified ingredients.

It's a different story in Europe, where only Spain has embraced the technology and several countries have a ban on growing the crops. The European public remains leery of GM foods, prompted in part by a vocal lobby of groups opposed to genetic engineering.

"They were able to put out their explanation of the technology before the scientists were able to. And they had an easier time doing it," said Gretchen Flanley, a spokeswoman for the American Seed Trade Association.

In May, the European Commission delayed a decision on licensing the cultivation of three GM crops, including an insect-resistant corn developed by Pioneer and Dow AgroSciences. The European Union has not approved a GM crop to grow on European soil since 1998.

"The European Union continues to be slow, and maybe in some cases not following their own rules," Oestreich said.

Yet there are some signs that European attitudes may be thawing. In a recent trip to Nebraska, the chairman of the European Union Parliament's Agriculture Committee said the combination of high food prices, climate change and biofuels development may help shift European attitudes toward GM crops, according to published reports.

The United Kingdom's National Beef Association recently issued a statement calling for the EU to allow more imports of modified grains in light of skyrocketing feed costs. Conventionally grown grains have become more difficult to obtain, pushing countries like South Korea and Japan to boost imports of GM corn.

With little uncultivated land left to farm, governments and corporations are focusing on ways to boost crop yields. Last week, Monsanto said it would develop seeds that would double the yields of corn, soybeans and cotton by 2030. The company is collaborating with two research centers to develop drought-tolerant corn for African farmers that it said will be provided royalty-free.

Oestreich said Pioneer's goal is to boost corn and soybean yields 40 percent within the next 10 years. Genetic engineering will play a part in that improvement, he said, but the company will need to use the full "tool chest of biotechnology," including the use of molecular markers to identify desirable genetic traits in plants, a system to grow and test corn at a faster rate, and a technology called "gene shuffling" that helps researchers test the effectiveness of variations of genes.

Some are skeptical about the potential for biotechnology to ease the problem of hunger. Several studies show that GM crops yield less than conventional varieties, said Freese of the Center for Food Safety.

Freese said most GM crops benefit large farmers by simplifying weed and pest control and cutting down on labor costs -- as well as creating a market for the herbicides sold by DuPont, Monsanto, Syngenta and others.

"It makes sense that biotech companies have focused on herbicide-tolerant crops because they are designed to be used in tandem with the chemicals they produce," he said.

Another concern is the patenting of genetically engineered seeds, a practice that Hope Shand of the ETC Group called the "privatization of biodiversity."

The group, an activist organization specializing in plant genetics and biodiversity, issued a report last month detailing how the top seed companies are filing hundreds of patent applications for plant genes that will resist environmental stresses brought on by climate change.

"What we're really seeing here is an opportunistic public relations strategy to drive farmers and reluctant consumers to accept genetically engineered seeds," Shand said. "I think it's very likely that we'll see the same strategy as it relates to the global food crisis."

Critics of genetic engineering say the industry has failed to produce crops with true benefits for consumers. But Oestreich pointed out that Pioneer is preparing to roll out in the next two years not only new herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant crops, but also a soybean engineered to produce healthier oil.

He said Pioneer works with about 1 million farmers in China, the world's second-largest corn growing country, where yields are about half of what they are in the U.S. China, which is awaiting regulatory approval to grow insect-resistant rice, has an opportunity to take advantage of GM crops, Oestreich said.

The business model of large agricultural companies like DuPont is sustainable, he said, and it can help the small farmer as well as the large.

"Biotechnology is scale-neutral," Oestreich said. "It's in the seed."

Delaware Online

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