Biotech "Revolution" May Be Losing Steam (18/1/2006)


Biotech "Revolution" May Be Losing Steam
Stephen Leahy

BROOKLIN, Canada, Jan 18 (IPS) - Just four countries plant 99 percent of the world's genetically engineered (GE) crops, despite more than a decade of hype about the benefits of agricultural biotechnology.

The United States, home of the agricultural biotech giant Monsanto, represents 55 percent of the world's GE crops, while Argentina, Canada and Brazil account for the rest.

Long trumpeted as the solution to world hunger, some biotech supporters have scaled back their claims and now say the technology will make a substantial contribution to ending hunger. But just when or if that contribution will ever arrive is not clear.

According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), GE technology has increased the incomes of 7.7 million resource-poor farmers in developing countries.

Clive James, chairman and founder of ISAAA, told IPS that "6.4 million of these are Chinese peasants growing Bt cotton on tiny farms. They use it because it cuts the number of insecticide sprayings from 30 times a season to half that."

"Our report shows that while they spend 70 dollars per hectare on the GM (GE) technology, the saving on insecticides and labour nets them 60 dollars per hectare," he said.

In the ISAAA's annual global status report issued on Jan. 12, it claimed that 90 million hectares of GE crops were planted in 21 countries in 2005. Although labeled an "anti-poverty group" by some media, the ISAAA is in fact a biotech industry-supported lobby organisation.

"No one has any idea where they are getting their numbers from," said David MacDonald of the Polaris Institute, a Canadian NGO. Where there is solid independent government data, such as in the United States, the ISAAA numbers are inflated by five to 10 percent, he charged.

MacDonald told IPS that the group's reports do not cite any sources or references, nor would most governments have this kind of information. "We and other NGOs have been trying to get independent confirmation of this data for years, without success," he said.

James responded that, "We spent 10 years getting key contacts in business, industry associations and governments to compile our data."

"We don't identify sources because our database is proprietary," he added.

Since no other global figures are available, the ISAAA numbers are widely quoted and referenced -- the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation cites them. An international survey on the commercial cultivation of GE crops in the Jan. 13 issue of science journal Nature is based on ISAAA data.

However, Nature interprets the data rather differently. "Only a few countries have wholeheartedly embraced a transgenic future," writes Peter Aldhous, chief news and features editor.

Despite billions of dollars invested in research by governments and industry over more than 20 years, only three crops -- cotton, maize and soy -- account for 95 percent of GE acreage. These three crops are either herbicide-resistant or contain Bt insecticide.

All that does is make life simpler for large farm operations to spray any amount of a particular herbicide without harming the crop, says MacDonald. Yields are not directly affected, nor are there additional nutritional benefits, improvements to the soil or environmental benefits.

GE cotton accounts for much of the small GE acreage in countries like South Africa, India, China and Mexico. In Argentina and Brazil, GE soy dominates on the large-scale farms, but farmers have so far avoided paying companies like Monsanto for their seed, which amounts to at least 250 million dollars in lost revenue, he says.

"Governments may be forced to impose a Monsanto tax on every bushel of soy sold," MacDonald added.

More than a decade of biotech industry promises of drought-proof crops or ones that thrive in salty soils or that improve yields have never been realised, nor have the promises to "improve" sweet potatoes, cassava or other local food crops using the technology.

And yet the hype continues. "While American farmers are Monsanto's main customers, much of their market is also overseas, where they've helped develop crops exclusively for Third World countries, including a variety of disease-resistant sweet potato," wrote Michael Fumento, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, in a widely published Jan. 8 column for the Scripps Howard News Service.

The GE sweet potato was a complete failure when it was planted in Kenya in 2004. It turns out that Fumento had previously received 60,000 dollars from Monsanto, and the company also partially finances the Hudson Institute. Scripps dropped Fumento as a columnist on Jan. 13.

"Biotech crops are not a solution to solve hunger in Africa or elsewhere," said Nnimmo Bassey of Friends of the Earth (FOI) Nigeria.

"The reality of the last 10 years shows that the safety of GM (GE) crops cannot be ensured and these crops are neither cheaper nor better quality," Bassey said in a statement.

In a 100-page report released Jan. 10, FOI International found that neither consumers nor the environment has benefited from the "genetic revolution" in agriculture. The "success" of GE crops is mainly due to aggressive marketing and misrepresentation of the benefits, the report concludes.

"It's an ongoing struggle to counter the biotech industry's hype," said Dick Bell of FOI U.S.

While FOI is not opposed to biotechnology in itself, none of the GE crops have undergone human health testing and the long-term health effects are still unknown. Many countries are understandably cautious about growing or allowing their citizens to eat them, Bell said in an interview.

"Countries like the U.S. and Argentina are taking a big gamble, especially considering the GE crops grown today offer little if any benefits," he said.

That is why industry and governments in those countries conspired to prevent labeling of food products made from GE crops, he said: "If they were labeled, no one would buy them."

While the industry says it is expanding by leaps and bounds and gaining entry into more and more countries, Bell says that growth has been incremental and will be an uphill fight over the next five years. Others, including Nature's Aldhous, agree that the 10-year battle is coming to a head but say it is too close to guess at the outcome.

The big three companies that dominate agbiotech -- Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer -- have some very powerful allies, the U.S. government and World Trade Organisation among them.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has long been a tool through which companies promote biotech in the developing world, according to Brewster Kneen, an author and food industry critic.

USAID has been particularly busy in Africa providing funding and technical expertise for biotech research and regulation. However, Africa is unlikely to be able to afford to buy large quantities of GE seed, said Kneen.

But James of ISAAA disagrees. "It's a fallacy that farmers can't afford the seeds or are concerned about patents," he said. "One million Indian farmers grow Bt cotton and that will at least double next year." (END/2006)


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