USA TODAY, February 2, 2005 -- CropChoice:
The promise of biotech crops — foods genetically
engineered to resist pests and weeds or even to produce
drugs for humans — may be going to seed.
After years of significant growth, the number of biotech
crops in the regulatory pipeline has plummeted, says
a report out today from the Center for Science in the
Public Interest, a group that supports a cautious approach
And CSPI says it takes twice as long today for such
crops to be approved by the government than it did in
the 1990s. Both the Food and Drug Administration and
the Department of Agriculture approve each biotech variety.
The FDA makes sure it is safe for human consumption;
the USDA looks out for the safety of other plants.
The FDA approved an average of 9.4 varieties a year
between 1995 and 1999 but only three per year from 2000
to 2004, CSPI found. The USDA approved 8.2 per year
from 1994 and 1999 but only 2.6 per year from 2000 to
"It's been our experience that there was a decrease
in the number of submissions to FDA for a number of
years following the initial wave of products,"
says Jim Maryanski, the FDA's food biotech coordinator.
This is a controversial issue in both the USA and Europe.
Anti-biotech activists believe that engineered foods
hold health and environmental dangers, while pro-biotech
enthusiasts wax eloquent about better, cheaper and more
environmentally gentle crops.
Biotech crops are a significant presence in American
agriculture. Ten years ago, there were almost none.
Today, most soy, cotton and canola is biotech, as is
almost half of the field corn (used primarily for feed
and grain), according to government statistics.
Globally, biotech crops increased 47-fold from 1996
But in those four crops, only two genetic traits have
been added — herbicide resistance and a built-in
pesticide. Though engineering such large-commodity crops
made economic sense, experts say the process is too
expensive to do in so-called minor crops.
Take lettuce, for example. Consumers don't like weeds
in their lettuce, so growers hire hordes of workers
to hand-weed fields. An herbicide-resistant variety
that lets growers kill weeds without hurting the lettuce
would have a huge impact, says Roger Wyse, a plant biologist
with biotech venture capital firm Burrill & Company
in San Francisco.
"The difficulty is that there are 20 kinds of
lettuce, so you'd have to go through 20 different approval
processes for a fairly small market. Layer on top of
that that no Safeway or Kroger wants to be picketed
for selling biotech crops, and it's just not viable,"
Agriculture giant Monsanto last year gave up on marketing
an herbicide-tolerant wheat — the one potentially
blockbuster crop left — in part because of concerns
that the public wouldn't accept it.
That was the case with biotech tomatoes and potatoes
The only other biotech crops grown commercially today
are tiny by comparison: 10,000 acres of insect-resistant
sweet corn (sold as a vegetable), 1,800 of virus-resistant
summer squash and 1,100 of virus-resistant papaya.
And new crops coming down the pipeline also are smaller
commodity crops. Possibilities in the next five to 10
years include herbicide-resistant sunflowers, soybean
and canola for the production of healthier oil; and
herbicide-resistant alfalfa and sugar beets.
Bob Buchanan and Peggy Lemaux at the University of
California-Berkeley created a hypoallergenic wheat in
1995 that was shelved because of fears that consumers
would reject it.
Buchanan is on the FDA's food biotech committee. "We
don't have any businesses. We taught China, and now
they're going to leave us in the dust," he says.
Agricultural economist David Zilberman at Berkeley
says China has planted many acres of biotech crops.
And the country is close to developing insect-resistant
rice. "China estimates it will save them $4 billion
a year," he says. "And the moment China does
it, India will. The train is moving."