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Biotech Crops On the Way Out?

Biotech Crops On the Way Out?

Christian Science Monitor
from the August 30, 2001 edition

HARVEST OF PROTEST: Farmers in France slashed a genetically modified
cornfield in Mauvezin this week. Unwilling to lose the European market, many
companies are pulling back from genetically altered crops.
CHRISTOPHE ENA/AP

No bumper crop of genetically altered plants
Faced with high risks and consumer skepticism, biotech firms pull back from
plans to transform farming.
By Laurent Belsie | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

ST. LOUIS - The world has never tasted US Patent 6,072,105 - a genetically
engineered eggplant - and probably never will. Scratch biotech potatoes from
the menu. And hold the genetically modified sweet corn.

After a decade of promises to transform agriculture and tens of millions of
dollars in research and development, biotech firms and seed companies are
scaling back their horizons. Instead of spreading their know-how to new farm
products, they're narrowing their focus to a few major crops, such as corn
and soybeans. The reason: Deepening consumer skepticism and tighter
regulation worldwide are boosting costs and increasing the business risk of
bringing bioengineered food to market.

Unless something changes, biotech proponents say only mega-crops pushed
forward by mega-corporations will move from the lab to farmers' fields.
Skeptics, meanwhile, are breathing sighs of relief. This much both sides can
agree on: The once-vaunted biotech revolution is bypassing an increasing
number of crops in a bold, perhaps risky, bid to survive.

"You don't see a lot of biotech okra or pumpkins out there," says Debi
Warnick of Syngenta Seeds Inc. in Nampa, Idaho. "We're going to have more
and more orphaned crops," like the eggplant.

Critics say such delays will give science time to assess the environmental
and health impacts of altering plants' genes. "It is a positive sign that
there is less pressure to adopt these crops," argues Jane Rissler, senior
staff scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington.

Experiments get shelved

Consider the bioengineered eggplant. Developed in the 1990s by scientists at
Rutgers University to resist a destructive beetle, the invention has gotten
a cold shoulder from industry because it represents too minor a crop. For
every acre US farmers devote to commercial eggplant, they raise more than
74,000 acres of wheat and 95,000 acres of corn. Not surprisingly, the
biotech industry prefers bigger crops that offer more potential profit.

Six years ago, the nation's 1.4 million-acre potato crop looked viable for
bioengineering. So biotech giant Monsanto introduced genetically engineered
potato seed designed to resist a damaging virus. This spring, with
commercial processors leery of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), the
company suspended sales of the product (although work continues in Mexico).

A sweet corn engineered by Syngenta could suffer a similar fate. Never mind
that it reduces conventional pesticide spraying, which can be both costly
and environmentally harmful. Processors don't want any trace of the corn's
special gene, because it could kill their lucrative export markets to
Europe, which demands GMO-free sweet corn, says Syngenta's Ms. Warnick.

More stringent regulation is forcing mid-sized companies to delay the
introduction of new bioengineered crops. "It has definitely slowed down the
introduction of new products," says Gary Koppenjan, spokesman for Seminis
Inc., the world's largest fruit and vegetable seed company. The Oxnard,
Calif., concern does sell one bioengineered squash. But the crop represents
less than 1 percent of sales. Although the company continues biotech
research, its next bioengineered vegetable won't emerge for another four to
five years.

"There are products that won't have biotech [added in] because of the
regulatory situation," adds John Nelson, marketing manger for the US arm of
Sakata Seed Corp., based in Yokohama, Japan. Sakata has adopted a company
policy not to offer GMOs in any of its product lines.

The dramatic slowdown isn't due to domestic regulators, such as the US
Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),
or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), says Val Giddings of the
Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade group based in Washington. It's
regulation in the European Union (EU) and elsewhere. What's especially
daunting to companies is the prospect of having to meet widely varying
standards from country to country.

A rulebook for every country

"If [firms are] daunted by the cost of the technology, just wait until they
face the rising cost of registrations," says Ronald Meeusen, vice president
of research and development at Dow AgroSciences LLC, based in Indianapolis.
"USDA, EPA, FDA, up to 15 member-state regulatory agencies in the EU ... as
well as the Japanese and others: Every one of them wants a dossier of
studies prepared their way and presented by local experts in their native
language. Many want studies repeated on their own soil."

Understandably, each nation wants to safeguard its consumers, industry
insiders concede. But the extra requirements and repeated testing can add 25
percent to an already hefty bill of $30 million or more to commercialize a
GMO crop.

Cost isn't the only issue. "It's logistics," says Warnick of Syngenta. The
company raises its melon seed in Asia. The melons are then grown in Central
America and exported to the US for consumption. If the firm genetically
engineered its melon seed, it would have to get regulatory approval in at
least three countries.

But such delays will help scientists gain a much better understanding of
genetic changes in plants, critics of the industry say. "It's hard to read
the scientific record of what's going on without being impressed by how much
we don't know," says Charles Benbrook, a consultant to consumer and
environmental groups and former executive director of the National Academy
of Sciences' board of agriculture.

Even major biotech corporations have had to adapt. Once pushing to sell a
wide variety of genetically modified crops from potatoes to sugarbeets,
Monsanto Co. in St. Louis has narrowed its focus. "We're focusing on four
core crops - corn, oilseeds, cotton, wheat," says Mark Buckingham, a
Monsanto spokesman. Not coincidentally, those are major crops in North
America, with vast acreages and profit potential.

But this go-slow, narrow-focus strategy poses risks. Market skepticism and
the growing thicket of international rules mean only the largest
corporations will be able to afford to commercialize a bioengineered crop.

"The future of agricultural biotech is somewhat uncertain," says Neil Harl,
an agricultural economist at Iowa State University in Ames. When the fate of
an industry rests in the hands of a few big players instead of many small
ones, "a mistake made in decision-making is far more devastating."

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