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Genetically modified foods find favor with farmers, resistance in E.U.

posted on March 31, 2000


AS PROTESTERS GATHERED IN BOSTON, USDA's BIOTECH ADVISORY COMMITTEE WAS MEETING IN WASHINGTON. THE FIRST ORDER OF BUSINESS WAS A REQUEST FROM USDA's GLICKMAN TO REVIEW THE SO-CALLED "TERMINATOR" TECHNOLOGY THAT RENDERS SEEDS STERILE.

USDA DEVELOPED AND HOLDS PATENTS ON THE PROCESS, WHICH PREVENTS FARMERS FROM REPRODUCING GENETICALLY ENGINEERED SEEDS. THAT HELPS PROTECT THE INVESTMENT IN BIOTECH CROPS OF SEED COMPANIES, WHO EFFECTIVELY LEASE G-M-O SEEDS TO GROWERS RATHER THAN SELL THEM.

CRITICS CHARGE THE TERMINATOR TECHNOLOGY GIVES SEED COMPANIES TOO MUCH CONTROL OVER FARMERS, WHO OFTEN SAVE SEEDS FROM YEAR TO YEAR TO CUT COSTS.

CRITICISM FROM CIVIC GROUPS OF USDA'S "TERMINATOR" PATENTS IS BROAD AND UNIFORM. DETRACTORS LABEL THE TECHNOLOGY BAD FOR FARMERS, FOOD SECURITY, AND BIODIVERSITY. FOR ITS PART, USDA SAYS THE PROCESS IS LARGELY MISUNDERSTOOD. EITHER WAY, IT'S DOUBTFUL THE BIOTECH ADVISORY COMMITTEE WILL RESOLVE THE ISSUE. ITS MEMBERSHIP IS SO FRACTIOUS THAT USDA HAS HIRED PROFESSIONAL FACILITATORS TO RUN THE COMMITTEE'S MEETINGS.

CLEARLY, THE ACCEPTANCE OF BIOTECH FOODS IS EVOLVING INTO A BATTLE FOR THE HEARTS AND MINDS OF CONSUMERS ... AT HOME AND ABROAD. AND THOUGH SEED COMPANIES ARE CONFIDENT, THE FUTURE OF BIOTECH CROPS IS MOVING FORWARD AT A CAUTIOUS PACE. DAVID MILLER EXPLAINS.

FOUR YEARS AGO, CLIFF MULDER OF PELLA, IOWA, DECIDED TO GROW CORN GENETICALLY ENGINEERED TO RESIST EUROPEAN CORN BORERS. MULDER'S CHOICE WAS A VARIETY WHICH INCORPORATED THE NATURALLY OCCURRING SOIL BACTERIUM BACILLUS THURENGIENSIS, OR Bt. THE Bt ACTS LIKE A SYNTHETIC PESTICIDE AND KILLS CORN BORERS WHEN THEY TRY TO EAT THE PLANT.

MULDER: "Bt corn for me is advantageous for the yield, I've seen over most years, a seven to twelve bushel yield increase with Bt corn. And I consider it a safe product. The safety of it is my biggest consideration."

BECAUSE OF THE RESULTS, MULDER WILL AGAIN PLANT Bt CORN. 200 OF HIS 250 ACRES WILL BE PLANTED IN Bt WHILE THE OTHER 50-ACRES WILL BE PLANTED IN A NON-GM VARIETY. MULDER'S NON-Bt REFUGE CONFORMS TO NEW E-P-A GUIDELINES WHICH ARE DESIGNED TO PREVENT CORN BORERS FROM BECOMING RESISTANT TO THE BIOTECH PRODUCT.

MULDER'S RESULTS ARE TYPICAL. MANY PRODUCERS ACROSS NORTH AMERICA HAVE EMBRACED THE NEW VARIETIES WHICH ARE IMMUNE TO GLYPHOSATE HERBICIDES, VARIOUS INSECTS OR PLANT VIRUSES.

IN 1996, THE FIRST YEAR G-M-Os WERE COMMERCIALLY AVAILABLE, LESS THAN 1% OF THE CROP WAS GENETICALLY MODIFIED. BY THE 1999 GROWING SEASON, 30% OF THE CORN AND MORE THAN 50% OF THE SOYBEANS AND COTTON WERE GENETICALLY ENGINEERED.

EVEN SO, QUESTIONS ABOUT THE NEED FOR GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISMS IN THE FOOD CHAIN ARE STILL BEING ASKED.

IT IS STILL UNCLEAR WHAT THE LONG-TERM BIOLOGICAL IMPLICATIONS OF THE NEW SEEDS WILL BE. SOME SCIENTISTS BELIEVE THE REAL IMPACT WON'T BE FELT FOR ANOTHER TWENTY YEARS. AT THE SAME TIME, ANOTHER FACTION BELIEVES THE MODIFIED PLANTS WILL NOT AFFECT ANYTHING EXCEPT THE TARGETS THEY WERE DESIGNED TO HIT.

RESEARCH BY BIG BIOTECH PLAYERS LIKE PIONEER HI-BRED, HAVE SHOWN NONE OF THE GENETIC MATERIAL PRESENT IN THE PLANT HAS BEEN FOUND IN THE MEAT OF PROCESSED BEEF OR POULTRY THAT ATE ANY OF THE G-M GRAIN.

STUDIES BY UNIVERSITIES, AND INDEPENDENT AGENCIES, SHOW THE USE OF TRANSGENIC SEEDS HAVE REDUCED THE AMOUNT OF SYNTHETIC PESTICIDES AND PETROLEUM BASED HERBICIDES APPLIED TO THE LAND.

BUT RESEARCH LAST YEAR BY PURDUE UNIVERSITY INDICATED Bt CORN POLLEN COULD ALSO KILL SO-CALLED NON-TARGET INSECTS LIKE MONARCH BUTTERFLY LARVAE. BUT THE SAME SCIENTISTS HAVE ADVISED CAUTION IN DRAWING ANY SIGNIFICANT CONCLUSIONS FROM THE RESULTS OF THEIR PRELIMINARY STUDY.

PRO-G-M-O FORCES BLAME THE REACTION OF CONSUMERS ON UNINFORMED MEDIA AND ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVIST GROUPS. BUT DESPITE WORLDWIDE CONTROVERSY, RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT CONTINUES. COMPANIES WHO MARKET AND SELL G-M SEEDS ARE CALLING TRAITS GIVEN TO THE FIRST GENERATION OF VARIETIES JUST A STEP IN THE BIOTECH REVOLUTION. THE NEXT GENERATION OF ENGINEERED SEEDS ARE SLATED TO CONTAIN VACCINES OR INCREASED LEVELS OF VITAMINS AND MINERALS.

ALL G-M-Os MUST MEET STRINGENT U-S-D-A, E-P-A, AND F-D-A STANDARDS. A RECENT OPINION POLL BY THE U.S. BASED "INTERNATIONAL FOOD INFORMATION COUNCIL" SHOWS MOST AMERICANS TRUST THE STAMP OF APPROVAL GIVEN BY THESE WATCHDOG AGENCIES.

MEANWHILE , A STUDY CONDUCTED BY THE UNITED KINGDOM'S INSTITUTE OF GROCERY DISTRIBUTION SHOWED EUROPEAN CONSUMERS ARE LESS LIKELY TO PURCHASE ANYTHING CONTAINING G-M-Os. EXPERTS BELIEVE SEVERAL FOOD SCARES, AND "ANTI-G-M MEDIA BLITZES", HAVE RUN GOODS CONTAINING BIOTECH INGREDIENTS OFF THE GROCERY STORE SHELVES. THE ENGINEERED VARIETIES HAVE ALSO BEEN GIVEN THE UNFRIENDLY MONIKER OF "FRANKENSTEIN FOODS".

STUDIES SHOW EUROPEAN CONSUMERS APPROACH FOOD DIFFERENTLY THAN AMERICANS. WHILE U.S. CITIZENS TEND TO LOOK AT FOOD AS A NECESSITY EUROPEANS VIEW FOOD AS SOMETHING TO BE EXPERIENCED.

ANNABEL FAUX (FOOS) IS A FOOD WRITER IN PARIS, FRANCE.

FOUS: "Well, here in France, the French people are very worried, and even frightened about GM foods. They're concerned about the threat to the environment especially since they discovered the studies which were published about the Monarch butterflies. And they're also concerned that it may cause a threat to their health, which is why they are rejecting GM foods more and more."

AFTER INITIALLY ENDORSING THE NEW SEEDS SOME E-U OFFICIALS ARE NOW CALLING THE SAFETY OF G-M PRODUCTS INTO QUESTION. U.S. FARMERS ARE CLAIMING THE CHANGE OF POLICY IS MERELY A COVER FOR RESTRAINT OF TRADE.

ULTIMATELY, SEVERAL MAJOR EUROPEAN AND U.S. BASED FOOD PROCESSORS HAVE LET THE COURT OF PUBLIC OPINION DECIDE THEIR COURSE. HEINZ, GERBER, NESTLE AND FRITO-LAY ARE ALL REFUSING TO USE ANY GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISMS IN THE PRODUCTION OF THEIR FOOD LINES.

AFTER THE RAPID EXPANSION OF THE ENGINEERED SEED MARKET, PREDICTIONS FOR SALES IN THE 2000 GROWING SEASON VARY. A STRAW POLL EARLIER THIS YEAR BY THE REUTERS NEWS AGENCY INDICATED FARMERS WERE PLANNING TO REDUCE THEIR PURCHASES OF G-M-Os BY 20%. BUT SEED COMPANIES, LIKE MONSANTO AND PIONEER, ARE PREDICTING SALES EQUAL TO OR SLIGHTLY BELOW LAST YEAR.

JERRY HARRINGTON IS PIONEER'S SALES PUBLIC RELATIONS MANAGER.

HARRINGTON: "I think what surprised surprised me is that our genetically enhanced seed sales are doing quite well nationally. Only a little bit below what they were ending up last year. I think the reason for this is the farmers see the value.

BIOTECH GIANT MONSANTO HAS HAD A SIMILAR EXPERIENCE. BRETT BEGEMANN IS VICE PRESIDENT OF U.S. MARKETS

BEGGEMAN: "our sales are beginning to look much better especially as a lot of the large grain companies, including Cargill and ADM and ConAgri and Cenex Harvest States have come out and taken a position that they will be accepting all biotech grain at all their facilities this year."

THE U.S. GRAIN PROCESSING INDUSTRY HAS DECIDED TO OPERATE WITH A "BUSINESS AS USUAL" STANCE. G-M-Os APPROVED FOR USE IN THE EUROPEAN UNION ARE BEING ACCEPTED AT ALL DELIVERY POINTS. ULTIMATELY, PROCESSORS WILL BE CATERING TO THEIR CUSTOMERS SO FARMERS ARE BEING ADVISED TO CHECK WITH THE LOCAL ELEVATOR BEFORE BRINGING A LOAD OF G-M-O GRAIN INTO TOWN.

GRAIN GIANT CARGILL IS NO EXCEPTION. LIKE THE REST OF THE INDUSTRY, THEY ARE ONLY REQUIRING FARMERS TO TELL THEM IF THE LOAD CONTAINS ANY GENETICALLY ENGINEERED GRAIN.

AFTER FOUR YEARS OF SALES, GROWTH AND GENERAL ACCEPTANCE THE FUTURE OF G-M-Os MAY COME DOWN TO WHO WINS THE PUBLIC RELATIONS BATTLE.

FOR MARKET TO MARKET, I'M DAVID MILLER.

Tags: agriculture biotechnology crops European Union farmers food genetic engineering news USDA