For more than a decade, two opposing views of the technology used for genetically engineering crops have fought for the hearts and minds of the world's farmers. At best, they've come to a standoff.
The technology allows scientists to genetically manipulate common crops such as corn, cotton and soybeans, inserting traits that, in one case, lets farmers spray weed killer without hurting the crop and, in other instances, fight off insects. The effort has been embraced by some as a way to better feed a world population that's soaring, but others raise the specter of "Frankenfood," whose long-term effect on human and environmental health has never been adequately studied.
Count the Europeans in the latter group. They've largely rejected genetically modified crops on the grounds they pose potential ecological and health nightmares.
Meanwhile in North America, and increasingly in South America, farmers embrace them, arguing they protect the environment by decreasing pesticide use and making no-till crops (where the soil is not plowed) possible. This increases water retention and decreases erosion, and at least by some measures reduces carbon released into the atmosphere.
But now, like a global tug of war, that standoff may be starting to shift in favor of biotech supporters. In an announcement that drew little attention in November, China said it had approved biotech rice and corn varieties, which some believe could be the beginning of a broader acceptance of the 16-year-old technology.
That's disturbing to groups like Friends of the Earth, which opposes genetically engineered crops and fights them in both the USA and Europe. "China most definitely will have an influence in the future of agriculture and trade. They grow an incredible amount of food and fiber, and the more they embrace this technology, the more it's going to be used," says Eric Hoffman, the group's genetic engineering policy campaigner in Washington, D.C. "There's potential for China shifting the balance away from the movement that Europe is creating to stop these technologies."
China's move could be mitigated in part by India's decision in February to reject a newly approved eggplant variety genetically engineered to produce its own insecticide. But the struggle is still on to win over the largely undecided portions of the globe: Africa and Asia.
Whatever governments are doing, a report out last month shows that worldwide, these crops are being adopted at a blistering rate, jumping 7% last year, an increase of 22.2 million acres. That's not bad for a technology targeting farmers, a generally conservative group when it comes to innovation, says Clive James of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Application (ISAAA), which is financed by the biotech industry.
"Farmers are smart people," says Gregory Jaffe, biotechnology director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a non-profit group in Washington, D.C., that tracks biotechnology but is neutral on its use. "They wouldn't continue to grow these over the years if in fact they weren't beneficial to them."
U.S. farmers certainly think so. By last year, biotech crops accounted for 85% to 95% of some key crops, including soybeans and cotton, the ISAAA says. Another reason there's little concern in North America is that almost all those crops are either fed only to animals (soy and feed corn), used for fiber (cotton) or are so processed that the genetically engineered proteins are no longer present (sugar beets and high-fructose corn syrup). An attempt to introduce genetically engineered wheat in 2004 failed because growers were afraid it would hurt export prices.
The 'precautionary principle'
Opponents, including Doug Gurian-Sherman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, say that the crops do little for consumers and that conventional breeding techniques are just as powerful.
Because the technology involves introducing genes from one plant or bacteria into another in combinations not found in nature, many believe it can never be proven entirely safe. They think science should operate on the "precautionary principle" that if something can't be proven to be 100% safe long term, it shouldn't be used. And they feel long-term research hasn't been done. "There really haven't been enough studies on the health effects of humans," Hoffman says.
Others argue that dozens of scientifically valid studies have found no human or animal health effects from crops resistant to herbicides and others grown to produce their own pesticide — a natural soil bacteria known as Bt. Jaffe believes "for the current crops that are grown throughout the world, there's a lot of data that show those crops are very safe to eat and safe for the environment. The more they're grown and the longer they're grown without a problem surfacing, (the more it) supports the people who said there wasn't a problem."
But for some, no amount of scientific proof would make them comfortable. "There are still some people who refuse to give vaccines to their children, yet they've been tried and tested and they're beneficial and safe," Jaffe says. The public-interest science center's goal is to move away from emotions and see that governments make "science-based decisions."
Worldwide, biologically engineered crops continue to be embraced in both developed and developing nations. Last year, 330 million acres of biotech crops were planted in 25 countries, the ISAAA says. The largest increases were in the developing world. Internationally, the USA is the biggest adopter, growing 158 million acres.
In Europe, however, the trend is reversed. Of 26 European Union countries, only six plant the one genetically modified, or GM, crop accepted there: insect-resistant corn. Germany discontinued GM planting in 2008.
Supporters of the technology want opponents to get real. With Earth's population expected to peak at 9 billion by 2050, from 6.8 billion today, humanity can't afford to give up any tools that might make agriculture more efficient, says Carl Pray, a professor of agricultural economics at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
"We are going to have to produce more food, and we're going to have to produce it more efficiently in the sense that we have water and land constraints and environmental concerns about not cutting down and burning all of the rain forest," Pray says. Biotech can be a tool in achieving that, he believes. Biggest on the list are the anticipated arrival of drought-tolerant biotech corn in the USA in 2012 and in sub-Saharan Africa in 2017, the ISAAA's James says.
The emergence of China
Europe's opposition may be less significant in the future. China is now "the biggest investor in public biotech crop research in the world," says Guillaume Gruère, an agricultural economist with the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C.
China also will be the first country where a major staple food of humans, in this case rice, will be genetically engineered with the Bt gene to resist the rice stem borer. Its other newly approved crop is corn that contains an enzyme that makes pigs better able to digest the nutrient phosphorus, which decreases the phosphorus they excrete in their manure. Phosphorus is a major polluter of waterways.
China also changes the debate because one argument against bioengineered crops has been that they are primarily owned and sold by large, multinational companies that don't have the interests of farmers, society or the environment at heart. "We can't just let these corporations make huge profit at the expense of public health and environmental health and biodiversity," says Friends of the Earth's Hoffman.
But in Asia, "for the most part, it's not companies that are doing it. It's coming out of the public sector, and that's really going to change the landscape," says Peggy Lemaux, a microbial biologist at the University of California-Berkeley, who is involved in genetic engineering of crops suitable for developing countries.
When China begins to grow genetically modified rice, "it will have a huge impact, at least in Asia," Gruère says. "Other Asian countries will say, 'They're growing it, they're eating it, they have less pesticide use. Maybe we should, too.' "
Genetically Modified Foods Get U.S. Traction, Global Debate
News Mar 17, 2010