Resolved: That the United States should substantially change its federal agricultural policy.
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|Source: Forbes, Feb 19, 2001 p113.
Title: Kernels of Truth.(agricultural policy and genetically modified
Full Text COPYRIGHT 2001 Forbes, Inc.
Call it the new colonialism. Europe has a new power over farmers in distant lands, controlling what they grow and what they don't, demanding that they use certain farming methods even if it means ignoring technologies that could improve yields, feed more people, and save lives.
Despite the proven benefits of genetically modified (GM) foods and the promise of better things to come, continuing controversy has led to European Union policies and regulations that limit growing and selling GM foods (sometimes called genetically modified organisms, or GMOs). These policies have had a sweeping impact worldwide, confusing researchers, scaring off investors, and hurting farmers.
European outcry over GM foods, spurred by organized anti-biotech activists, has caused regulators to declare that foods with any amount of genetically modified ingredients must be labeled as such. That creates problems for exporters and grocery chains, which are reluctant to stock so-called Frankenfoods. GM critics got a boost in September when genetically modified StarLink corn, approved in the United States for use as animal feed but not for human consumption, was found in Taco Bell brand taco shells, prompting a national recall.
"We didn't need the taco shell problem," sighs Steven Burrill of Burrill & Co., which manages an $86 million agricultural biotechnology investment fund in San Francisco. "It has had a dramatic impact on the public capital markets, on the regulators, and on the public companies. Every company that's in ag-biotech is trying to say that what they are doing doesn't create or augment GMOs." Tellingly, Burrill's fund has not invested in companies that create GMOs. Rather, he has favored companies with information and genomics technologies that could help in identifying important genetic traits.
But there's more at stake than the fluctuations of the stock market. If the chilling effect of public opposition halts new research, we could lose a host of new technologies that read like a progressive activist's fondest wish list:
Clean-burning fuels such as combustible alcohols and canola oils could be efficiently produced with plants that have had their metabolic pathways engineered by researchers. Such fuels would be renewable, requiring no drilling and little refining. (Some vehicles in Europe already run on fuels derived from canola, but making the technology commercially feasible is still a distant hope.)
Genetically engineered pulp trees might soon require fewer chemical pollutants for the production of paper. One day, trees may grow faster and stronger as plantation crops and relieve the pressure to log old-growth forests.
Crops engineered to require less fertilizer would result in less nitrogen spread on the ground, reducing greenhouse gases and groundwater contamination.
Starvation could be eased. In fact, agricultural biotechnology is already having an impact. Golden rice, engineered to produce high levels of beta carotene, is being distributed free in Third World countries, where Vitamin A deficiencies result in hundreds of thousands of cases of blindness and other preventable illnesses every year. But it is a transgenic crop, meaning it has genes from another species, the very definition of what critics deride as Frankenfood.
With golden rice as the model, companies are racing to develop foods they hope will taste better, last longer, and be more nutritious. Researchers also seek to expand the food supply by making crops drought-resistant and salt- tolerant, able to thrive on land currently unsuitable for farming. In China and elsewhere, efforts are under way to create strains of rice that would resist rice blast fungus, a devastating crop disease responsible for famines in Asia.
DO AMERICANS CARE?
What are the chances that this important work will be stopped in the United States, home to some of the world's leading ag-biotech companies? Europe may be unique for a number of reasons. Cases of mad cow disease in the United Kingdom and now continental Europe, dioxin in Belgian food, HIV in the French blood supply, and other recent government debacles have shaken the faith of the public in their regulatory agencies. Consequently, many European consumers are unwilling to accept the government's word that GM foods are safe.
But most surveys show that American consumers are relatively unconcerned about GM foods, says Thomas J. Hoban, a sociology and food science professor at North Carolina State University who has monitored public perception of the foods for more than a decade. Even after the StarLink incident, biotechnology was near the bottom of the list of things that worry consumers at the supermarket.
But unlike Europe, in this country, regulatory agencies-the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency-oppose mandatory labeling of foods containing GMOs. An American Medical Association committee recently concluded that GM foods don't pose serious health risks and don't require special labeling. The U.S. philosophy, in essence, is that food should be labeled if these products differ significantly from their conventional counterparts. In the eyes of the government, the genetic modifications of current crops don't cross that line because the alterations are tiny compared with many things that already go unnoted on food labels.
"There are 200 genetically different corn hybrids used to produce the yellow dent corn for the commodity markets in the U.S., and they're all quite different," notes Wallace Beversdorf, head of R&D at Novartis Seeds. "They differ in protein content, oil, in many attributes, including susceptibility to fungi....We don't label all that. It's still No. 2 dent corn." Adding a single gene with a single protein product is, for consumers, irrelevant, he maintains.
David Schmidt, senior vice president for food safety at the International Food Information Council, argues that labeling would make insignificant differences look important, and that the scientific language needed to explain it might in effect become a skull and crossbones in the eyes of shoppers.
Still, others in the industry are beginning to wonder if labeling might offer more benefit than burden. "If we had labeling, we probably wouldn't have had half the chaos we've had," says Burrill. Even Beversdorf concedes that some form of labeling may be inevitable, particularly if U.S. consumers, stirred up by the StarLink recall and European outcry, begin to demand it. Labeling here would also ease efforts toward harmonization of international trade laws, he acknowledges.
Some go even further. Dave Summa, president and CEO of Mendel Biotechnologies in Hayward, California, suggests that industry could turn a perceived liability into a benefit by creating a new category of "green foods" and communicating the message that they are "grown in a better way," he says.
"What we're doing is growing more food on the same land, destroying less land by having better growing practices, using fewer chemicals," Summa says. "We in the industry could get together and say we're going to create a 'green' mark that would meet certain standards," such as 50% lower use of pesticides and fertilizers. "Then people would feel good about what these technologies are doing."
The gulf between the biotech industry and activist groups may be too broad to span, but industry still hopes to win over consumers. "Education is important, but it's not going to be enough," says Keith Walker, president of the Plant and Industrial Products Division at ValiGen, a San Diego, California, company researching ways to make drought-resistant and saline-tolerant crops. Indeed, educating people about biotechnology has become a political process, with anti- biotech activists on one side, industry on the other, and the media in the middle. In Europe, Walker suggests, consumers will need to regain faith in regulators if GM crops are ever going to have a chance.
For now, the fact that GM foods must be labeled in Europe, making supermarkets reluctant to touch them, has had ripple effects. One instance occurred in Canada, where researchers at the Crop Development Centre at the University of Saskatchewan (Saskatoon) developed a transgenic strain of flax seed resistant to sulfonylurea herbicides already in the ground. The herbicides used on cereal grains in western Canada's alkaline soil do not break down well, making it difficult to grow broadleaf plants like flax. This new strain could thrive where conventional varieties withered.
But Europe is a major market for flax, so exporters who ship there would have to guarantee that their product contains no GM seed, which would be impossible if the crops were grown anywhere in western Canada. That requirement meant 10 years of research went down the drain, says Gordon Rowland, a flax breeder and former director of the Crop Development Centre. The seeds, which were never planted, are being destroyed and the product is being deregistered. The hard lesson is that in food-exporting countries like the United States and Canada, farmers must consider the demands of Europe as well as domestic regulations, a tricky balancing act.
"If there were tolerances for transgenics in shipments, I'm sure that the [GM] variety could have gone ahead," says Rowland. "You could have guaranteed that there would be, at worst, a very low level of any transgenics in a shipment."
But that's not the way it works. "There is zero tolerance, and that's impossible," he notes. "If you've got a [GM] variety out there, you cannot absolutely guarantee there won't be some mixing or contamination at some point in the process."
The added irony is that flax is largely used for its oil, which contains no protein or DNA, transgenic or otherwise. (Most objections to GM foods have to do with the fear of consuming novel genes or allowing their "escape" into the environment, neither of which would be possible after the DNA and proteins are removed.) In any case, the oil is used largely for industrial applications such as paints, inks, and linoleum rather than food.
European resistance to GM foods also hurts U.S. sugar beet farmers, who are struggling against foreign competition. Roundup Ready sugar beets-already approved for commercial use-would save farmers $90 to $100 per acre in weed control costs, according to Hoban of North Carolina State. "But they're afraid to implement the technology because of the downstream processing companies," he says. Major food processing companies wouldn't want to risk buying the product because the sugar would be rejected by European grocery stores. This is despite the fact that refined sugar contains no protein or DNA and would be indistinguishable from products with a conventional origin.
So far, these kinds of problems are more a matter of economics than survival. Industry insiders point to the enthusiasm for biotechnology in countries like China and India, where the focus is less on profit and more on feeding large populations and averting famine. But as researchers develop more crops like golden rice, the discontinuity between Europe and the rest of the world could trigger bigger problems. For example, if an engineered rice strain resistant to blast fungus were not planted because of European concerns, an epidemic might cause widespread famine. "Harmonization [of labeling requirements] is key, but I don't see anything happening for the next couple years," says Beversdorf, who works in Basel, Switzerland. "I hope I'm wrong."
Meanwhile, the battle for the hearts and minds of the American public continues. While most consumers remain sanguine about (or oblivious to) genetically modified foods, researchers are becoming increasingly discouraged about what they see as a cynical campaign by activist groups to turn the public against technology that could help bring relief to a needy world. "Almost 30,000 children die of nutritionally related diseases in this world every day," says ValiGen's Walker.
But arguing in support of the environmental benefits of GMOs may be an uphill battle. Some of the biotech industry's best potential allies have already staked out positions in opposition. Greenpeace calls for "no genetic manipulation of nature," a rallying cry that if taken literally would outlaw farming practices extending back to the Neolithic Age. In May, the Sierra Club called for "a moratorium on the planting of all genetically engineered crops...including those now approved."
In the end, it may be economics that brings us together again. Europe is in essence demanding its own supply chain of food, and consumers will ultimately pay for it. For important crops such as soybeans that come from outside Europe, the onus of assuring GM-free cargo will fall to importers. Such specialty crops are nothing new; Japanese importers regularly commission farmers to grow special varieties of soybeans and keep them separate from other crops. Farmers are happy to oblige-for a price. European shoppers, who already pay more for food than Americans, may one day become frustrated with food costs in much the way they balked at high gas prices last year. At that point, European grocers may have the courage to stock GM foods, duly labeled, on their shelves.
Karl Thiel is the editor in chief of DailyTwist, an online magazine on the biotechnology industry published by DoubleTwist.