*More study needed on GMOs
*Consumers, manufacturers slow to accept GE foods
*Federal studies to look at environmental effects
Editorial: More study needed on GMOs
Tuesday, September 5, 2000
Iowa State University stepped into the dispute over Bt corn's impact on monarch butterflies last month when ISU research scientists reported results of a study that found mortality higher among monarchs exposed to Bt corn pollen.
ISU researchers found that 20 percent of monarch larvae died after being exposed to the Bt material for two days. More than half died three days after exposure.
The biotechnology industry immediately responded that the ISU study was fatally flawed. "Much of what (the study) reports is based on analyses taking place in laboratory manipulations rather than field conditions,'' said Val Giddings, vice president of food and agriculture for the Biotechnology Industry Organization.
Researcher John Oecologia said real field conditions may have led to more monarch deaths, not less. He suggests that government researchers dropped the ball because they didn't conduct similar studies before Bt corn gained regulatory approval. "Coming up with a good ecological assessment of this technology probably needed to be done before planting it across the Midwest,'' he said.
That's what environmental groups think, too. They have petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to require farmers to plant buffer zones of conventional corn around Bt fields to protect monarchs.
The EPA is reviewing its standards regarding biotech crops and is expected to release new recommendations this month. The EPA enacted Bt corn planting restrictions earlier this year to prevent insects from gaining resistance to Bt products. Farmers are required to plant a minimum of 20 percent conventional corn in most areas.
The ISU study was only the latest to raise a red flag about Bt's impact on monarchs. Last year, Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., published a report that raised serious concerns. The report caused a furor in Europe, where environmental activists cited it as reason to ban Bt corn and its products.
There is little reason to hope the worldwide Bt controversy will end soon. Only last month, the Minneapolis City Council passed a resolution 11-1 stating that the GMO food haven't been adequately tested by "any federal agency'' for long-term impacts on human health or the environment and that GMOs "could have serious impacts on levels of toxins in food, antibiotic resistance, cancer, immunosuppression and allergic reactions, and may be particularly threatening to children and the elderly.”
The hard-line resolution, which hasn't yet been signed by the mayor, won't have any practical impact. However, the Minnesota biotechnology immediately demanded that the council reverse itself. The biotech industry believes the resolution is a result of raw emotion and no scientific facts.
In any case, the resolution indicates how hot the entire issue of GMO products have become in the United States. The Cornell and ISU studies -- no matter how flawed they might be -- add fuel to the fire. Perhaps the EPA's soon-to-be-released guidelines will calm some fears. Just don't expect the issue to die any time soon.
The public outcry about GMO seed could translate into opportunity for non-GMO crop producers if processors start offering significant premiums for certified non-GMO crops. That hasn't happened yet -- a few cents per bushel more for non-GMO grain isn't yet an adequate incentive for producers.
It might never be, especially if GMO backers are right when they say the issue will blow over just like it did for BGH in dairy production. It's too early to tell about that.
It is clear the government should have worked harder and conducted more research before GMOs gained widespread use. It's time for the government to do those tests to reassure consumers about the safety of GMO-based food products.
The editorial above is the opinion of Mychal Wilmes, managing editor, and Janet Kubat-Willette, staff writer.
Biotech crops stunted by perception; Consumers, manufacturers are slow to accept genetically altered foods
BY BRETT CHASE Bloomberg News
September 4, 2000
Snack-food executive Dan McGrady was nervous as he stood before 400 Ohio farmers last year at Plain City's Der Dutchman restaurant. They had gathered to discuss genetically modified organisms made by companies such as Monsanto Co., now a unit of Pharmacia Corp. and DuPont. Farmers were using GMO seeds because they held the promise of making crops resistant to pests and disease and may eventually add nutrients such as vitamins to foods.
" People were saying corn is corn and beans is beans," said McGrady, a vice president at closely held Wyandot Inc., one of the largest U.S. makers of snacks for supermarket chains. "Then I'm the last to speak, and I'm saying things like, 'Well, boys, we don't want your GMO corn.' "
Wyandot joined Procter & Gamble, Frito-Lay, McCain Foods and Seagram Co. in asking farmers who spent $2.7 billion on gene-altered seeds to provide only conventional crops. Foodmakers say consumers fear gene-altered products and won't buy them, a perception that threatens the billions that biotechnology firms spent to develop the seeds.
After a popular start with farmers and food processors, sales of GMO products have slowed. To salvage their investments in seed development, companies such as DuPont and Monsanto have revamped business plans and waged a $50 million promotion to dispel health concerns.
Genetically engineered crops have quietly become a major force in Wisconsin agriculture. Experts estimated that more than 1 million acres of biotech corn and soybeans were planted by state farmers last year. Scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison estimated that 25% of all corn and 30% of all soybeans growing in Wisconsin last summer were genetically engineered.
While biotechnology companies insist their products are safe, they acknowledge that consumer opposition is slowing near-term prospects for growth.
Swiss drug maker Novartis AG, one of the three largest makers of bio-engineered seeds, has banned such ingredients from all products made by its food unit, which includes Gerber baby foods and Ovaltine.
Novartis said its farm chemicals unit was depressing earnings, so it agreed to merge the business with AstraZeneca's agricultural unit and will spin it off into a new company called Syngenta. Both Novartis and AstraZeneca plan to focus on higher-growth drug businesses.
Monsanto, whose shares fell 25% last year on concern about the fate of gene-altered products, merged with Pharmacia & Upjohn to form Pharmacia Corp. The new company plans to spin off as much as 20% of the agricultural business in a stock offering to separate drug and agriculture units.
DuPont, the world's largest chemical company, has lowered its expectations for agricultural technology. The company had expected that its agricultural products would be valuable combined with DuPont's nutrition and drug businesses as a new "life sciences" unit. It planned to create a class of stock to track the unit's performance. Sensing that investors had cooled to the idea, DuPont shelved the plan.
After contending for years that consumer opposition to gene-altered foods would blow over, the companies are pinning their hopes in part on the use of bioengineering to add nutrients to food crops, products that are several years from reaching the market.
Gene- altered crops include corn and potatoes genetically changed to resist pests or soybeans made to tolerate a potent weed killer. While the technology benefits farmers, consumers have seen little gain. Consumer perceptions could change, the companies say, when people see the future benefits.
Most surveys show U.S. consumers don't fear or have no knowledge of gene-altered foods. More than 60% of packaged foods sold in U.S. supermarkets contain bio- engineered ingredients.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration reiterated its belief on May 3 that the foods were safe. After holding three hearings and considering changes in policy, the FDA made only minor adjustments to the way it polices the foods.
Still, food companies are being cautious in the U.S., after European and Asian countries restricted imports of bio-engineered crops based on consumer wariness about tampering with genes and the effects on health and the environment.
McCain Foods, one of the largest makers of frozen French fries for fast-food restaurants, asked its hundreds of contract farmers not to deliver gene-altered potatoes for frozen-food products this year. McDonald's Corp. asked suppliers for conventionally grown potatoes.
Such requests have led farmers to plant fewer genetically modified seeds. Just 25% of the land devoted to the U.S. corn crop was planted this year with bio-engineered seeds, down from 33% in 1999, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Genetically engineered soybeans were planted on 54% of total acres, down from 57% last year.
DuPont, Monsanto and other companies have tested public opinion and found that while people responded negatively to genetically engineered foods in general, they liked the idea that the food could reduce the use of chemicals. Environmentalists say altered crops have other detrimental effects, creating new strains of plants and weeds and upsetting the ecosystem.
Consumers surveyed by the companies favored using genetic engineering to produce more nutritious food. That could add momentum to one new biotechnology strategy. Some consumers also responded positively when told the technology could help feed people in poor countries by boosting crop yields.
The technology companies are getting support from other industries and even government officials. The same food companies shunning bio-engineered food are supporting the technology through the Grocery Manufacturers of America.
Food companies also are battling shareholder resolutions demanding bans on gene-altered foods. PepsiCo and Kellogg Co. shareholders voted down proposals this year.
IT'S THE GENES
-- Most surveys show U.S. consumers don't fear, or have no knowledge of gene- altered foods.
-- More than 60% of packaged foods sold in U.S. supermarkets already contain bio-engineered ingredients.
Genetically modified crops tested in Alberta: Federal studies will look at environmental effects of controversial plants
Hanneke Brooymans, Journal Staff Writer
The Edmonton Journal
31 August 2000
On a small patch of land in drought-stricken southern Alberta, Agriculture Canada is taking its first hard look at genetically modified organisms.
Two species of herbicide-tolerant canola and one species each of genetically modified corn and potato will be studied over 10 to 12 years to see what environmental effects the crops might have, said Bob Blackshaw, research scientist for Agriculture Canada.
Shorter studies with narrower focuses have been done before on the selected crops, but their effects on the environment have never been examined over such a long period, Blackshaw said.
The study was partly spurred by increasing concern about genetically modified organisms. Blackshaw will work with a dozen other scientists on their well-irrigated plot of land, studying the effects of the modified crops on disease, insect populations, weeds, soil, micro-organisms and livestock.
Michael Khoo, with Greenpeace, said the research should have been done before the widespread commercialization of the products in question.
“We applaud the government for looking into the dangers of genetically modified crops, but this is clearly a case of closing the barn door when the horses are all long gone.”
Blackshaw said there has already been a substantial amount of research done on these particular crops, primarily by companies developing and selling the seeds. He believes their data are sound. "But there is still a perception of, is that data totally unbiased,” he said. “Our job is to have a neutral attitude and provide information, whether it's good or bad, to the scientific community, and let someone else make decisions in terms of what that means for the sale or registration of these products.”
Blackshaw said it would be at least four years before any useful results are available. That's because the crops are grown in a four-year rotation. Data are collected every year, but four years are necessary to be able to compare the results to those of conventional crops.