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Genetically modified agriculture and bioengineered food gains ground

Genetically modified agriculture and bioengineered food gains ground

Genetically modified agriculture and bioengineered food gains ground
Frankenfood No More: The Bright Side of Genetically Modified Agriculture and the Future Ahead
Tina Butler,
May 15, 2005

A new milestone was reached and surpassed this week as the one billionth acre of genetically enhanced crops was planted. This event was tracked by the not-for-profit group, Truth About Trade and Technology, an organization dedicated to supporting free trade and agricultural biotechnology.

This international organization has developed a sophisticated monitoring system for counting planted and harvested acres and maintains a constantly updated ticker on their website. Even though biotech crops became available for the first time only ten years ago, they have been rapidly adopted, as indicated by this massive amount of land now planted. The first US commercial acres were planted in 1996 and now an area larger than the state of California is under cultivation with bioengineered crops. Close to 85 percent of soybeans, 75 percent of cotton and half of the corn in the United States is genetically enhanced; these crops are veritable super varieties whose genes have been manipulated in the lab. These, among nearly a dozen other genetically modified crops, have been altered by scientists for the purposes of producing higher yields or for increased resistance to herbicides, pests and drought.

There is a strong public bias towards genetically modified food and unless perceptions change, this still widely-held sentiment may hinder the development of the industry. Detractors to biotech crops label the plants as “frankenfood” and highlight the risks associated with bioengineered agricultural products. These risks include the creation of super pests that build up resistances to the in-bred pesticides, runner genes–where transgenic crops have the potential to contaminate wild plant species or organic or conventional fields through pollination and the cause of harm to regular, innocuous animals like Monarch butterfly caterpillars, such as was the case with biotech corn pollen. Despite these flaws, it is impossible to deny the rise in usage of modified plants. They have become conventional. Biotech is the changing face of agriculture, whether people like it or not. Biotech crops were planted in 18 countries in 2004. By 2010, it is projected that 15 million farmers will grow genetically modified crops on up to 375 million acres in 30 countries.

Supporters argue that genetically enhanced crops are simply the next step in a natural progression of agricultural innovation. Farmers have been crossbreeding plants for millennia, and biotech crops, proponents maintain, are part of this history. Beyond this heritage, agricultural producers have adopted these plants for the plain benefit of growing more food on less land at a lower cost. Those on the side of biotech assert that this type of agriculture is less demanding on the environment than traditional crops, rationalizing that the higher productivity levels on already existing land reduces pressure to cut down more forest or convert other types of natural areas. Positive environmental and economic effects have been documented in developing nations that have planted biotech crops. Chinese farmers growing biotech cotton in 1999 reported that they sprayed 60 percent fewer times (eight times instead of the average 20), reducing their insecticide expense by 82 percent. Their yields for 1999-2000 increased by an average of 10 percent. 90 percent of the farmers benefiting from biotech crops were resource-poor countries, whose incomes from this type of agriculture contributed to the lessening of poverty. Since 1980, farmers around the globe have increased corn production by 45 percent, and by adding only less than five percent more acreage to fields. The additional corn that was produced saved an equivalent of 130 million acres of rainforest from being cut down.

Supporters of biotech crops also hold that such plants further protect the environment in the promotion of new farming techniques that preserve topsoil and use resources more effectively. This reasoning is compelling given the rising demands from a growing global population with rapidly diminishing resources. Lastly in this environmental defense of genetically enhanced agriculture is the point that these plants are subjected to a rigorous testing and registration process by the USDA, FDA and EPA prior to approval for commercial use, ensuring that only safe agricultural products make it to market. In the future, proponents prophesize, biotech crops will be preferable for consumption over traditional crops as scientists develop new methods for producing crops with additional enrichment, adding essential vitamins and nutrients, among other benefits.

Currently, the US sees no need to label genetically modified foods as such. The rest of the world does not feel the same way. In many other countries, governments are very concerned about these altered crops and have imposed much higher regulations. China for example, still prohibits genetically modified foods for commercial consumption. This may soon change however, in light of new information from scientific research.

A recent set of field experiments featuring the cultivation of bioengineered and enhanced rice in China has produced some evidence strongly in the favor of promising outcomes. Results from the study appeared in the April 29, 2005 issue of “Science” and report that the performance of transgenic rice helps greatly reduce usage of pesticides while also improving rice yield and lowering pesticide-related poisoning. Research indicates that transgenic pest-resistant rice generates six percent more yield and uses 80 percent less pesticide than conventional rice. China began research on genetically modified crops in the 80s, but has not yet developed any genetically modified crops for the commercial market. The country has been developing new varieties of transgenic rice since the mid 90s, out of which four strains had been chosen for the most recent production experiments in 2002. Up until this point, such varieties have not been approved for commercial production in China as the government has enforced a ‘no-risk’ approach to genetically modified rice. These field trials were designed to identify the effects of the genetically modified crops on farm households before the crops are commercialized to establish their safety and viability.

And yet, even with these developments, those against the biotech industry find fault in the expansion of this kind of agriculture. In April 2005, Greenpeace accused China of illegally growing and selling genetically modified rice in central China over a period of at least the last two years. This claim was based on findings from lab tests on samples of rice from seed companies, farmers and rice millers in the Hubei province. A statement issued by a Greenpeace representative read, “We are calling on the Chinese government to take urgent action to recall the unapproved (genetically engineered) rice from the fields and from the food chain, and to conduct an immediate inquiry into the source of the contamination.” The cause for concern is that the rice has been genetically engineered to produce an inbuilt pesticide that can cause allergic reactions in humans. Despite these claims, genetically modified foods undergo meticulous analysis to avoid exactly these kinds of occurrences.

The USDA has issued two new reports on agricultural biotechnology that address both the identification and distribution of agricultural genetically modified products and on the future of the industry. The reports are entitled “Global Traceability and Labeling Requirements for Agricultural Biotech-Derived Products–Impacts and Implication for the US” and “Preparing for the Future” and were developed by the USDA’s Advisory Committee on Biotech and 21st Century Agriculture (AC21), a diverse committee dedicated to examining biotech’s future influence on agriculture. The first report reflects on the increase of mandatory biotechnology traceability and labeling requirements in other nations, how different sectors of the US agriculture producers are addressing these new requirements and marketplace issues and tools that are pertinent to these developments. The second report supplies the USDA with an analysis of the factors that will shape the applications of biotech in the future, identifying broad trends that will likely influence the future as well as possible uncertainties that could propel the future on a different course. The second report also provides three possible scenarios for the future.

The future of agricultural biotechnology is not guaranteed in spite of current trends. At present, the industry is rapidly expanding, at a rate similar to the growth of demand for food. The ultimate success of this new agriculture hangs on it adoption or rejection by the market. It is estimated that it takes 1.25 acres to feed a person for one year. By these calculations, one billion acres has the potential to feed 800 million for a full year. The question is, will the public embrace or deny this potential?