No bumper crop of genetically altered plants

Faced with high risks and consumer skepticism, biotech firms pull back from plans to transform farming.

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.

Farming's biotechnology revolution is changing course.

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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