Biotechnology appears to be withering as a food source

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 to biotechnology.

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 2004.

"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 to 2004.

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," Wyse says.

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 elsewhere.

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."