Soaring food prices and global grain shortages are bringing new pressures on governments, food companies and consumers to relax their longstanding resistance to genetically engineered crops.
In Japan and South Korea, some manufacturers for the first time have begun buying genetically engineered corn for use in soft drinks, snacks and other foods. Until now, to avoid consumer backlash, the companies have paid extra to buy conventionally grown corn. But with prices tripling in two years, it has become too expensive to be so finicky.
"We cannot afford it," said a corn buyer at Kato Kagaku Co. Ltd, a Japanese maker of corn starch and corn syrup.
In the US, wheat growers and marketers, once hesitant about adopting biotechnology because they feared losing export sales, are now warming to it as a way to bolster supplies. Genetically modified (GM) crops contain genes from other organisms to make the plants resistance to insects, herbicides or disease. Opponents continue to worry that such crops might pose risks to health and the environment.
Golden harvest: Soya beans being harvested in Brazil. Soya bean output in the world’s largest producer after the US is likely to beat forecasts this year after farmers used gene-modified seeds to grow stronger plants. (Photo: Paulo Fridman |Bloomberg)
"I think it's pretty clear that price and supply concerns have people thinking a little bit differently today," said Steve Mercer, a spokesman for US Wheat Associates, a federally supported cooperative that promotes American wheat abroad.
The group, which once cautioned farmers about growing biotech wheat, is working to get seed companies to restart development of GM wheat. Even in Europe, where opposition to what the Europeans call Frankenfoods has been fiercest, some government officials and business executives are calling for faster approvals of imports of GM crops. They are responding in part to complaints from livestock producers, who say they might suffer a critical shortage of feed if imports are not accelerated.
In Britain, the National Beef Association, which represents cattle farmers, issued a statement this month demanding that "all resistance" to such crops "be abandoned immediately in response to shifts in world demand for food, the growing danger of global food shortages and the prospect of declining domestic animal production."
The chairman of the European Parliament's agriculture committee, Neil Parish, said that as prices rise, Europeans "may be more realistic" about the issue of GM crops: "Their hearts may be on the left, but their pockets are on the right."
With food riots in some countries focusing attention on how the world will feed itself, biotechnology proponents see their chance. They argue that while genetic engineering might have been deemed unnecessary when food was abundant, it will be essential to help the world cope with the demand for food and biofuels in the decades ahead.
Through gene splicing, the modified crops now grown—mainly corn, soya beans, canola and cotton—typically contain bacterial genes that help the plants resist insects or tolerate a herbicide that can be sprayed to kill weeds while leaving the crop unscathed. Biotechnology companies are also working on crops that might need less water or fertilizer, which could have a bigger impact on improving yield.
Certainly any new receptivity to GM crops would be a boon to American exporters. The US accounted for half the world's acreage of biotech crops last year.
But substantial amounts of corn, soya or canola are grown in Argentina, Brazil and Canada. China has developed insect-resistant rice that is awaiting regulatory approval in that country.
The pressure to re-evaluate biotech comes as prices of some staples such as rice and wheat have doubled, provoking violent protests in several countries including Cameroon, Egypt, Haiti and Thailand. Factors behind the price spikes include the diversion of crops to make biofuel, rising energy prices, growing prosperity in India and China, and droughts in some regions—including Australia, a major grain producer.
Biotechnology still certainly faces obstacles. Polls in Europe do not yet show a decisive shift in consumer sentiment, and the industry has had some recent setbacks. Since the beginning of the year, France has banned the planting of GM corn while Germany has enacted a law allowing for foods to be labelled as "GM free."
And a new international assessment of the future of agriculture, released on 15 April, gave such tepid support to the role genetic engineering could play in easing hunger that biotechnology industry representatives withdrew from the project in protest. The report was a collaboration of more than 60 governments, with participation from companies and nonprofit groups, under the auspices of the World Bank and the United Nations.
Hans R. Herren, co-chairman of the project, said that providing more fertilizer to Africa would improve output much more than genetic engineering could. "What farmers really are struggling with are water issues, soil fertility issues and market access for their products," he said.
Opponents of biotechnology say that they see not so much an opportunity as opportunism by its proponents to exploit the food crisis. "Where politicians and technocrats have always wanted to push GMOs, they are jumping on this bandwagon and using this as an excuse," said Helen Holder, who coordinates the campaign against biotech foods for Friends of the Earth Europe. GMO refers to genetically modified organism.
Even Michael Mack, the chief executive of the Swiss company Syngenta, an agricultural chemical and biotechnology giant, cautioned that the industry should not use the crisis to push its agenda.
Whatever importance biotechnology can play in the long run, food shortages are making it harder for some food buyers to avoid engineered crops.
The main reason some Japanese and South Korean makers of corn starch and corn sweeteners are buying biotech corn is that they have dwindling alternatives. Their main supplier is the US, where 75% of corn grown last year was genetically modified, up from 40% in 2003.
But the tightening global supply has made it harder to get non-engineered corn from elsewhere. And as corn prices soar, millers and food companies are less able to pay the surcharge to keep non-engineered corn separate from biotech varieties. The surcharge itself has been rising.
©2008/The New York Times
Su-Hyun Lee in Seoul and Yasuko Kamiizumi in Tokyo contributed to this story.