Biotech food fizzles out In USA and farmers challenge Monsanto's contracts (16/5/2004)

A US (Detroit) paper reports on the meltdown of the biotech industry. A decade after they were first promoted by the US Government there is virtually no market anywhere for GM foods and the cultivation of the few key crops survives mainly because of the animal feed industry. Both consumer rejection and flawed technology are blames for the fiasco. Ironically the one justification in the article for GM crops - reduced pesticide use - has also proven to be untrue. Consumer opposition is reinforced by farmer dissatisfaction. Another US paper (Missouri) reports on the anger of Farmers Unions at Monsanto's contracts that prevent farmers from saving and replanting their own seeds. The union is pressing the State Government to overturn the patent law that enables Monsanto to set such conditions.

Hope for biotech foods fizzles
Economics, regulations blamed, and market fails to materialize
By Lance Gay / Scripps Howard News Service
The Detroit News (USA)
Sunday, May 16, 2004

A decade ago, amid much fanfare, the Food and Drug Administration approved for supermarket sales the first of what promised to be a new generation of genetically modified crops: an ordinary-looking tomato called the Flavr Savr.

Now, the Flavr Savr is nowhere to be found on market shelves. Neither are any of the other genetically modified strawberries, squash, lettuce and potatoes that won government approval after millions of dollars spent on research and development.

Kent Bradford, director of the seed biotechnology center at the University of California-Davis, said the commercialization of gene splicing for lucrative horticultural crops has come to a virtual stop in recent years — although there still is a thriving market for genetically engineered crops like soybeans, corn, canola and cotton.

About 150 million acres around the world are growing genetically modified plants, most of which are destined for animal feed.

But once-heady hopes that genetic engineering would launch a revolution are fading. A decade ago, some forecast that genetic engineering would bring as many changes to American agriculture as did the post-World War II “green revolution” in which crop yields doubled, mainly because of pesticides.

Bradford said that engineered horticultural crops never broke into the lucrative niche markets that make up the $81 billion in fresh produce sold in the United States each year.

“The economics make it difficult to put it into the market,” he said. Bradford said he’s still convinced that engineered crops have a bright future, even though the Monsanto company announced this month that it is suspending efforts to bring a new pesticide-resistant wheat to market.

“I remain optimistic that eventually we will use these technologies, but it’s going to take time,” he said. Bradford said the benefits of using genetically engineered seeds to lower the use of pesticides, and the prospect of cheaper foods that come with greater yields, make the technology inevitable.

But what happened to the Flavr Savr and other bioengineered plants shows that there’s an uphill fight. This year, the Food and Drug Administration is expected to announce whether it will allow genetically modified salmon on the market — the first generation of gene-spliced animals.

The Flavr Savr tomato, the result of five years of study, was engineered to allow the fruit to ripen on the vine. But maturation was delayed, making it easier to transport to market.

Still the Flavr Savr failed simply because shoppers just didn’t take to it, said John Radin, a U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher. Consumers found no particular advantage in buying a Flavr Savr.

“Probably the most important lesson is, the customer is always right,” said Radin.

California Agriculture, a magazine published by the University of California, devoted its April-June issue to why genetic engineering hasn’t worked for many crops.

In some cases, researchers found that genetic engineering wasn’t effective. Plant engineers were successful in developing a virus-resistant squash, for example, but it was only resistant to some strains.

Other problems involved government regulations that required individual approval for every “event,” when a gene was inserted in plants, even in different varieties of the same crop. Field-testing of horticultural crops has declined.

Seed buying contracts may become state issue
By Danny Henley
Morris News Service
The Topeka Capital-Journal (Missouri, USA)
Published Saturday, May 15, 2004

HANNIBAL, Mo. -- Monsanto has the legal right to require farmers to sign purchase agreements, requiring them to purchase genetically enhanced seeds every year.

There are those, however, who question that right, particularly when it puts American producers at a financial disadvantage.

Russ Kremer, president of the Missouri Farmers Union, which he said "adamantly supports" legislative action on the state level, believes it ought to be a farmer's "God-given right" to set back or save their own seed.

"We talk about competing, and family farmers have been given this challenge of competing with our foreign competition. We agree that's fine and dandy if we're playing on a field that's level, and it's not," he said. "This is one of the things we can put into place to relieve the pressure on family farmers who are trying to make a profit. This would significantly impact their bottom line."

Kremer isn't alone in believing something needs to be done to help farmers compete globally.

"Farmers need the ability to be competitive, not just among one another, but now with other countries as well," said Rep. Wayne Henke, D-Troy.

"Independent farm producers are at a completely unfair disadvantage because of this issue -- not being able to save seed," said Rep. Rachel Bringer, D-Palmyra. "I think it's an issue we'll have to keep fighting for until it is resolved."

Mike Frank, vice president of product management for Monsanto, doesn't believe it is a fight that should be waged on the state level.

"Why a state-level representative would bring forward that sort of proposal, I just don't understand the logic in that," said the Monsanto official. "A patent law is a federal issue, not a state issue. All of the representatives should understand that.

"In addition to the patent laws, we ask growers to sign grower license agreements, which articulates the rules of purchasing seeds. Farmers (purchasing Roundup Ready) will continue to be really clear on the issues, regardless of any proposed legislation being brought forward at the state level. If (state legislation) does confuse, it's unfortunate. It's not our intention."

Others, however, feel that state legislatures are a proper venue for change to be instigated, Frank said.

"If more and more states form a coalition, we will see some action taken on the national level," said Kremer, who predicts a "challenge in court is a good possibility" if any legislation changing the current system is passed.

"When enough states stand up for the ability of the small, independent farmer to compete fairly, the federal government will take action," Bringer said. "This needs to be driven by the states so the federal government will take action."

Go to a Print friendly Page

Email this Article to a Friend

Back to the Archive