Reuters Planet Ark
January 03, 2006


By Carey Gillam

KANSAS CITY -- When Monsanto introduced the world to genetically
modified crops a decade ago, the biotech advancement was heralded as
the dawn of a new era that could reduce world hunger, help the
environment and bolster struggling farmers.

Now, biotech beans, cotton, corn and canola are profit-drivers at
Monsanto and are lifting the fortunes of rival companies like Swiss-
based Syngenta and Dow AgroSciences LLC, a unit of Dow Chemical Co.
The gains are largely due to a broad US acceptance of crops that have
been genetically altered to withstand weed killers and insects, and
backers say, generate higher yields.

But as the industry celebrates its 10th anniversary, the early
promises of biotech crops remain largely unrealised, and many
countries have banned the technology amid concerns about potential
danger for human health and the environment.

"GM products have not lived up to those early exaggerated
expectations," said Joel Cohen, senior research fellow at the
International Food Policy Research Institute. "We now have a series of
very dependable, reliable crops using this technology. But there is
still a large precautionary perspective."


Indeed, for nearly every step forward, there is a step back. Last
month, cereal giant Kellogg announced it would start using a healthy
low linolenic oil derived only from Monsanto's biotech soybean in its
biscuits, crackers and other food products.

But less than two weeks later, rival Kraft Foods, the world's second-
largest food producer, said it would stop supplying all genetically
engineered food products, including additives, to China due to a lack
of market acceptance. Pepsico and Coca-Cola have made similar pledges.

There have been other recent setbacks, including a decision in
November by Swiss voters to ban the planting of biotech crops for five
years, and the recent revelation in Australia that a biotech pea
caused health problems in research mice, forcing cancellation of that

In 2004 Monsanto was forced to withdraw a biotech wheat it planned to
sell in the United States and Canada because of strong market
opposition. Other failed projects include Monsanto's delayed-ripening
tomato and a healthier potato.

"Genetic engineering has not delivered on any of its promises for
human health benefits," said Margaret Mellon, director of the
Agriculture and Biotechnology Program at the Union of Concerned
Scientists. "There are a lot of failures scattered at the side of the

Other critics say biotech crops have created more problems than
they've solved, creating herbicide-resistant weeds, for instance.

Backers say biotech crops are good for the environment because they
can reduce the amount of chemicals needed to grow healthy crops.
Opponents say chemical use increases many times because of weed
resistance and other problems.

And they say that farmer profits tied to better yields get eaten up by
the higher prices they pay for biotech seeds. Critics say the
technology has not eased hunger because many poor countries are unable
or unwilling to adopt it.


Still, acreage planted with biotech crops around the world is
increasing and this year topped more than 1 billion acres (404.7
million hectares) sown to soybeans, corn, cotton, canola and other

In the United States, 52 percent of all corn, 79 percent of upland
cotton and 87 percent of soybeans planted in 2004-05 were biotech
varieties, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

An industry report is expected to show good growth not only in the
United States but in many other countries. Barriers in Europe are
slowly lowering and new products in the pipeline should help improve
acceptance, biotech backers say.

"We're now 10 years into it, on a billion acres in 17 countries," said
Dow AgroSciences vice president of plant genetics Pete Siggelko.
"There will be some continuing bumps in the road, but we are starting
to see a balance of very good news and growth. The genie is way out of
the bottle."

Cotton, corn, soybeans and canola, all first rolled out in the
1995/1996 growing seasons, remain the top biotech crops but the future
should bring new crops, biotech backers say.

Iran became the first country to commercialise biotech rice in 2004,
approving a pest-resistant variety.

And Syngenta last year announced a new strain of "golden rice" that
produces up to 23 times as much beta-carotene as previous varieties.
The rice will be available for free to research centres across Asia.

Michael Fernandez, executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food
and Biotechnology, said there is currently "enormous investment" in
agricultural biotechnology in China, Argentina, Chile and other
countries, and genetically modified rice was likely to gain approval
in China in the near future, a move that could shift acceptance
globally in favour of biotech food.

"We haven't seen anything that has been dramatically new in a while,"
Fernandez said. "But I think we're starting to see signs of more
movement forward."

Copyright Reuters News Service 2006