But the current tilt toward agricultural sophistication has not occurred without controversy. Indeed the development of genetically altered seeds has yielded a bumper crop of hotly debated public issues ranging from the economic to the environmental. David Miller explains in this report on the state of the biotech industry.
Seed companies have made biotech products a staple of their marketing mixes while farmers have become more careful about their seed purchases. Barring the introduction of products with new traits, the giant leaps in sales experienced in the mid-90s appear to be at an end.
Jerry Armstrong is Pioneer Hi-Bred's corporate vice president of North American Sales.
Jerry Armstrong, Pioneer Hi-Bred: "We see the biotech sales really, percentage wise, holding pretty steady. The thing we do see though is we see farmers taking their own situation, looking at the input cost, what's right for their farm, how they'll use the grain, will they sell the grain, or will they feed the grain and checking with their local grain originators to see okay, how should we handle this and what should we plant and what makes the best economical decision for me."
And biotech market leader Monsanto has also been encouraging the "know before you grow" mentality. Brett Begemann is Monsanto's Vice President of U.S. Branded Products.
Brett Begemann, Monsanto: Now with Round up Ready corn, which is yet to receive EU approval, we have an aggressive channeling program in place for responsible stewardship of introducing that product before we have EU approval. And in that case, we encourage those growers to insure that they have a market for the product before they plant the seed.
But not all has gone well for the industry over the past year. A study conducted at Iowa State University demonstrated that non-target insects, like Monarch butterfly larvae, can be killed by Bt corn pollen that is actually meant to destroy corn borers. Despite the apparent support to a preliminary study conducted at Cornell University in 1999, scientists continue to warn about drawing any conclusions from these tests until further research is done.
Phil Clap, GE Food Alert: The have known for three to four weeks now that Starlink has made it into the food supply.
Both the regulatory and grain handling systems took it on the chin last year when Starlink corn, which was only approved for use in animal feed, made its way into the human food supply. Aventis Crop Science, the maker of Starlink, purchased all the remaining seed it could find and gave test kits to processors to help prevent any further contamination. But grain processing leaders like ADM continue to test every load.
The processing giant has also begun to do what was before thought to be too costly if not physically impossible:
segregate GMO and Non-GMO products. ADM has begun to separate roundup ready and conventional soybeans for its European customers.
Larry Cunningham is ADM's senior vice president of corporate affairs.
Larry Cunningham, ADM: They want them to come from conventional soybeans instead of from Roundup Ready soybeans. So we've had to put a mechanism in place where we can identity preserve from the farm all the way through our manufacturing facility to the customer... pure soy protein made from non-GMO soybeans.
For its part, the Environmental Protection Agency discontinued issuing "animal feed only" permits for GMO grains.
Even with attempts at preventing contamination of the non-GMO food stream, the fiasco was influential in pushing US corn exports down by 4%.
Still, the biotech industry can boast a positive effect on the environment. Farmers have reduced the amount of chemicals sprayed on the land. And what chemicals are sprayed can now be more directly targeted at specific bugs or weeds.
A recent US EPA study concluded the impact of biotech products on the environment is relatively benign. And tests by seed companies reveal the DNA used in creating these super plants does not appear in the muscle tissue of chickens or cattle fed biotech grains.
And public opinion surrounding transgenic foods appears to be changing. In the late 90s, Monsanto attempted to introduce its line of GMO seeds into the European market. Already nervous and upset by the "mad cow" scare, anti-GMO groups like Greenpeace helped influence Europeans to reject the new grains. Over the past two years companies like Monsanto have begun to talk with its detractors in an attempt to mend fences and assuage fears.
Whether the general attitude change of biotech giants like Monsanto will influence a world searching for more plentiful and cheaper food remains to be seen. But a recent survey conducted by the INRA, a French-based agricultural research firm, shows the hard-line resistance in European Union countries may be weakening. The study reports two-thirds of French citizens say they would be willing to purchase foods with genetically modified ingredients if they were properly labeled.
The apparent willingness of the French to purchase these products has not changed the policy of many wholesale buyers in European countries. As an example, British grocery stores do not stock items containing any genetically modified grains.
In the United States, even in the light of high profile food debacles like StarLink corn, consumers are not particularly concerned about the composition of what they eat. Surveys continue to confirm that price has more of an influence on food purchases than content.
Survey data not withstanding, food processors continue to operate on the assumption their customers do not want biotech ingredients in their food. Frito-Lay, Gerber, Heinz, and McDonald's, most of whose raw ingredients are grown on contract, continue to refuse to use any GMOs in their product lines.
But there was always the promise that one day there would be products available with more consumer-centered traits. Researchers have promised fruits, vegetables and grains containing extra vitamins or vaccines but none have brought a commercially viable product close to market until now. In January of this year, Professor Ingo Potrykus of Switzerland and Professor Peter Beyer of Germany presented a strain of rice they genetically engineered to contain increased levels of vitamin A to the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines for further testing. Their rice, a product of more than 10 years of research, and funded in part by a grant from the Rockefeller foundation, has been nicknamed "Golden Rice." In third world countries, where rice is a staple, Golden Rice could help decrease malnutrition and blindness. Though the earliest the transgenic rice is expected to be available for commercial release is 2003, the biotech industry has rallied around the new product. As an example, Monsanto will donate its map of the rice genome and is waiving royalty fees on all of its patented technology to help bring the rice to market.
The future continues to look bright for the industry. Products containing vaccines or higher levels of vitamins and minerals remain in the research phase. And by 2003, Pioneer and Monsanto are expecting to release a line of GMO corn that is resistant to root worms. Good, bad or indifferent, as long as the benefits outweigh the disadvantages, biotech crops will continue to be part of the food equation.
For Market to Market, I'm David Miller.