Billions continue to be spent on research into the genetic structure of a host of crops. The hope is the futzing can produce plants that will yield more and be more resistant to pests and disease. But no matter the speed of laboratory evolution, controversy has developed even faster.
In recent years, opposition to the technology has ranged from those who seek to terminate it to those who think it offers significant benefits. There's also the more politically charged question of who should own and market genetically altered organisms.
In no economic sector is the potential of G-M-O's debated more than in agriculture. And, as David Miller explains in this status report, there are few advocates who are embracing it, and are utilizing the technology more, than American farmers.
2002 is the seventh crop year where seeds, genetically modified to resist a variety of chemicals and pests, have been available to farmers. As planting began earlier this year those seeds promised both hope and controversy.v
At the time, the USDA estimated 32% of the corn, 74% of the soybeans, and 71% of the cotton planted in the 2002 crop year will be genetically modified. If these projections are accurate it will be the largest number of biotech acres ever planted in the U.S..
In the spring, Monsanto, the world leader in biotech products, experienced sales matching the trends in the marketplace. Kerry Preete is Monsanto's Vice President of U.S. Markets
Kerry Preete, Monsanto, Vice President U.S. Markets: "So overall that's kind of the landscape from an acreage standpoint. Our business obviously will follow somewhat the trends of those acres but overall things are looking pretty positive at this point."
This was true for corn market leader Pioneer Hi-Bred as well. Bill Fleet is Pioneer's Region Director, North American sales.
Bill Fleet, Region Director, North American Sales: "If you would look at our sales numbers today you will see very clearly that we're well ahead of where we were at last year, tremendously ahead. I think there's a reason for that. I think customers really do see the value of the BT gene in corn."
Meanwhile, those opposed to the proliferation of biotech products have taken on a new persona. The days of marches featuring giant ears of corn or mutant sheep are not as commonplace as they once were. Nowadays it is more likely to see critics wearing a coat and tie than a set of butterfly wings.
Seed companies, grain associations, elevators and processors regularly recite the "know before you grow" mantra to avoid another Starlink fiasco.
ADM, America's grain processing leader, still accepts all grains approved for human consumption in the U. S., Europe and Japan. And, in a nod to the marketplace, the processor is continuing with its innovative soybean separation program where biotech beans are kept away from non-biotech varieties.
When first introduced, farmers wondered if a profit could be made planting GMOs. A survey conducted in 2001, by the Iowa State University based Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, showed there was no monetary advantage or disadvantage to growing biotech crops.
Mike Duffy, co-author of the study, is Associate Director of the Leopold Center.
Mike Duffy, The Leopold Center: "...farmers that are looking and saying this is going to go to the GMO and that's going to help my financial problems are saying it more as I'll go to the GMO, it will help my financial problems because I'll be able to cover more acres so then I'll be able to make more income which again gets back a lot to a term that Willard Cochran coined several years ago about a technology treadmill and round and round she goes."
Duffy believes the reason for the widespread adoption is the ability for farmers to take care of more ground with fewer inputs. Fleet and Preete would agree.
Bill Fleet, Region Director, North American Sales: "I think for starters I think our data would indicate that yields are very comparable depending on maturities and varieties. You'll have some products that will out yield others, that's common."
Kerry Preete, Monsanto, Vice President U.S. Markets: "I think the fact that we have continued to see very rapid adoption and penetration of soybeans and Yield Guard corn and other BT corn products really speak to the fact that these products are offering real value and real benefit to the growers."
Even though the seeds have all received USDA, FDA and EPA approval a dispute has erupted over what impact transgenic plants might have on people or the planet. Over the past few years several groups have worked to answer that question.
-The USDA's Agricultural Research Service, or ARS conducted a study that determined Monarch butterfly larvae were not at significant risk from Bt corn pollen.
-The Federation of Animal Science Societies conducted a study that revealed that no genetic material from biotech seeds was found in the meat, milk or eggs of animals that ate biotech grains.
-And a National Academy of Science study concluded that, overall, there was no evidence that GM crops harmed the environment.
Even with many of these questions resolved for the moment, others have taken their place. One of those questions centers around pollen drift and its effect on the purity of crops in nearby fields.
All of these questions have effected how countries around the world are using biotech products.
-Gerber, Frito-Lay, and McDonald's, which grow most of their raw products on contract, continue to reject GMO products.
-European consumers continue to avoid foods with genetically engineered ingredients while the majority of North American consumers accepting them without reservation.
-And China, according to a study conducted by Rutgers University, is spending 100-million dollars a year on biotech crop research and has approved thirty-one crops for sale.
A set of regulations for approval of transgenic crops from other countries was also created. The U.S. Trade Commission felt the rules were vague enough to be considered a non-tariff trade barrier. In February the Chinese agreed to provide clarification to the sketchy regulations. The whole ordeal held the 1-billion dollar a year U.S. soybean export market in limbo for several months.
Recent events on the trade front not withstanding GMOs are being planted in China with Bt Cotton at the top of the list.
Most of the promised products with more output traits than input traits remain in the research phase. Vaccine-laden sweet potatoes and high beta-carotene rice have yet to make it out of the lab and on to the consumer market. Only the Vector Tobacco Company has promised to deliver cigarettes containing genetically engineered low nicotine tobacco sometime in early 2003.
On the horizon for farmers are products that will combine protection against European corn borers and corn rootworms while simultaneously resisting glyphosate herbicides like Roundup. Both Monsanto and Pioneer are waiting for approval around the world before offering these products for sale.
Ultimately, it is expected that unless a major trading partner of the U.S. puts a ban on GMO grains farmers will continue to plant GMO seeds in ever increasing numbers.
For Market to Market, I'm David Miller.