AMES, IOWA — On the face of it, farming's biotech revolution is wavering.
As hearings on reapproval of genetically engineered crops begin this week in the United States, protesters have stepped up their attacks. Farmers have slowed the rate at which they're adopting the new crops. And industry missteps, such as the widening scandal over nonapproved modified corn showing up in taco shells and other food, has done nothing to reassure consumers.
But quietly, another biotech push is gathering momentum that may prove unstoppable. Universities and nonprofit research organizations are pressing ahead to genetically engineer hardier crops and more nutritious food for the world's poor. And while the US and Europe bicker over how to regulate these new crops, several developing countries are forging ahead with research that could lead to dramatic transformation of agriculture in poor countries.
"There's no way you are going to stop that technology, anymore than you could stop the automobile or the computer," says Al Clausi, an agricultural consultant. "It's just too good."
Here at Iowa State University, the technology is proving so useful that 265 of the university's 1,800 faculty are now working on it. Since 1984, the university has poured $70 million into biotech, including a plant transformation facility to do the genetic grunt work for researchers - the first public facility of its kind in the US.
At the moment, the facility handles 10 to 12 projects a year - half from inside the university, half from institutions as far away as Britain. And demand is growing, says director Kan Wang. "Other universities are starting transformation facilities, and I still see the increase."
Researchers say the technology offers more precision and speed than traditional plant breeding. Adding a specific trait to corn might take 10 to 15 years with conventional techniques, says Tim Reeves, director of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico. Genetic engineering could bring that down to five years.
By itself, the technology won't feed all the world's hungry. In Southern Africa, for example, Mr. Reeves calculates corn yields would have to double to provide enough food. Genetic engineering might provide 10 percent of that boost, but traditional breeding, fertilizer, and other efforts will be needed, too.
Since biotech only provides a piece of the puzzle - and a controversial piece at that - some researchers argue public money to battle hunger would be better spent elsewhere.
"We don't have to use genetically modified methods," says Hans Herren, director of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Nairobi, Kenya. While seed companies have genetically engineered corn to resist a corn borer common to the US and Europe, Mr. Herren's center is teaching farmers to use natural grasses to repel the pests.
And genetic engineering carries risks - though how much remains unclear. Evaluating it is like trying to predict the effects of the Y2K computer bug in advance. It's possible the technology could spawn superweeds and pests with enough resistance to spread like wildfire.
But the potential payoffs are huge. By inserting pest-resistant traits into plants, the technology is already reducing the pesticides used on crops. Future advances could produce hardier crops in such abundance that farmers would be less vulnerable to the vagaries of weather and less inclined to carve out new land from rain forests because their old fields were exhausted.
For consumers in the developed world, who already have ample food, the potential benefits may not outweigh the risks of genetically modified food. This week, the US controversy over biotech corn in taco shells widened dramatically. Aventis FoodSciences, an agricultural biotech company in Research Triangle Park, N.C., announced that its genetically modified corn may have moved into the nation's food system in much larger amounts than previously known.
Traces of the corn had already been found in taco shells sold under the Taco Bell and Safeway brands. Now the company, which is desperately trying to buy the crop back, says the corn was sold to 260 grain elevators, many of which resold it to food companies. The corn was only approved for animal consumption, and researchers say it might trigger allergic reactions in people.
The flap is likely to fuel further public distrust of the technology and more government scrutiny.
Meanwhile, many European nations are adopting such high safety standards that biotech seed companies could find it difficult to commercialize their discoveries. And the European Union, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand are considering mandatory labels on foods containing altered crops - a move the industry fears will scare consumers away.
"The next year could be crucial for biotechnology, particularly in the international arena," says US Undersecretary of State Alan Larson. The food standards body of the United Nations will address biotech crops next year.
But in the developing world, where food production is more marginal and population continues to burgeon, the risk-benefit calculus is different. In some regions of India, for example, crop losses can run up to 50 percent.
"The conventional approaches have not provided a solution," says Usha Barwale-Zehr, joint director of research for an Indian seed company. "We cannot afford to ignore the potential application of biotechnology for the Indian farmer."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society