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Wednesday, 18 June 2008

The victorious march of Monsanto

In Lean Times, Biotech Grains Are Less Taboo

Published: April 21, 2008

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 having tripled in two years, it has become too expensive to be so finicky.

In the United States, 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 crops contain genes from other organisms to make the plants resistance to insects, herbicides or disease. Opponents continue to worry that such crops have not been studied enough and that they might pose risks to health and the environment.

“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 U.S. 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 genetically modified wheat and to get foreign buyers to accept it.

Even in Europe, where opposition to what the Europeans call Frankenfoods has been fiercest, some prominent government officials and business executives are calling for faster approvals of imports of genetically modified 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.

The chairman of the European Parliament’s agriculture committee, Neil Parish, said that as prices rise, Europeans “may be more realistic” about genetically modified 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 for helping the world cope with the demand for food and biofuels in the decades ahead.

Through gene splicing, the modified crops now grown — mainly canola, corn, cotton and soybeans — 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 genetically modified crops would be a boon to American exporters. The United States accounted for half the world’s acreage of biotech crops last year.

But substantial amounts of corn, soy 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 like rice and wheat have doubled in the last few months, 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 genetically modified corn while Germany has enacted a law allowing for foods to be labeled as “G.M. free.”

And a new international assessment of the future of agriculture, released last Tuesday, 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 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 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 G.M.O.’s, 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. G.M.O. 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 current crisis to push its agenda.

Whatever importance biotechnology can play in the long run, food shortages are making it harder for some 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 United States, where 75 percent of corn grown last year was genetically modified, up from 40 percent in 2003.

“We cannot get hold of non-G.M. corn nowadays,” said Yoon Chang-gyu, director of the Korean Corn Processing Industry Association.

But the tightening global supply has made it harder to get nonengineered corn from elsewhere. And as corn prices soar, millers and food companies are less able to pay the surcharge to keep nonengineered corn separate from biotech varieties. The surcharge itself has been rising.

Mr. Yoon said non-engineered corn cost Korean millers about $450 a metric ton, up from $143 in 2006. Genetically engineered corn costs about $350 a ton.

In Europe, livestock producers say that regulations on genetically modified crops could choke feed supplies at a time when they are already reeling from higher prices. Even after a new genetically engineered variety is approved for growing in the United States, it might take several years for Europe to approve it for import.

Moreover, European rules require an entire shipment of grain to be turned back if it contains even a trace of an unapproved variety. Such a problem last year disrupted exports of corn gluten, a feed product, from the United States to Europe.

Feed makers and livestock producers want faster approvals and a relaxation of the rules to allow for trace amounts of unapproved varieties in shipments.

Even in the United States, where genetically engineered food has been generally accepted, the wheat industry has had to rethink its reluctance to accept biotech varieties.

Because about half of America’s wheat crop is exported, farmers and processors feared foreign buyers would reject their products. Facing resistance from American farmers, Monsanto in 2004 suspended development of what would have been the first genetically modified wheat.

But some farmers and millers now say that the lack of genetically engineered wheat has made growing the grain less attractive than growing corn or soybeans. That has, in turn, contributed to shrinking supplies and rising prices for wheat.source

My comment:

Few points from the article that I think we should all notice.

  • most often engineered crops: canola, corn, cotton and soybeans
  • "providing more fertilizer to Africa would improve output much more than genetic engineering could"
  • 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.
  • 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.
I have few question. How exactly G.Mo foods will help easing the hunger, when the crops they offer are mostly canola, corn and soy. Because as far as I'm concerned, they are not exactly major food varieties. At least they are not major part of my diet. Notice how most of those crops are either used for cattle feed or for use in junk foods as soft-drinks and other sh*t. Like waffles and stuff. Which I love eating, but basically I could live without. But if they add engineered wheat, that is an essential part of people's diet. Who's going to guarantee me it's safe? And that I will have a choice not to buy such foods. If i want to. And sorry, FDA is not a example of healthy approvals, not for all the problems with medicaments-check After The Pink Goat for more info. What's even more-the reason why some producers choose to use engineered food isn't the quality or the price-it's the lack of alternatives! I find this very worrying. Monopoles didn't give anything good to our world. My last point- as someone from the article very well noticed-if those money are invested in fertilizer, water supplies and tools, they will help much more the World's Food Need than G.Mo food can. A personal note-I read in the comments in the NY article that the reason people fear G.Mo. crops is because they lack technical knowledge. I have enough technical knowledge! And I don't fear the science behind the crops, I fear the corruption behind their approval for general use. That's it!


stella_geen said...

In Europa we have law's, wich exclude of import GMO'S.
We don't want that and it will NOT happen. Monsanto wil NOT take over Europa.
Monsanto should be prosecuted for: Agent Orange, PCB's, GMO's, the suicide-seeds and everthing they want to achieve at all costs.
Monsanto is a murderer, almost as bad as Hitler was in one person.

In Europa we have several groups in all countrie's , fighting against Monsanto.
Monsanto will never concor Europa.

Denitsa said...

Unfortunately, that's not entirely true.
Sure, there are laws against the import of some GMOs, but Monsanto is one of the biggest technology employers in East and Central Europe and the control over the contamination of food is so low, you're practically eating GMO's every time you buy a candy (it was a survey in Bulgaria and it proved there are GMO ingredients particularly soya in all kind of products. And not to mention that the laws on that are slightly different all over Europe and without labelling and control, it's hard to tell what products goes on whose table. )
Not to mention the growing lobby of bio-tech companies like Bayer and Monsanto. And the large amount of "independent" scientists that simply cannot understand why EU and EC are so unhappy with GMO when they can solve ALL the problem.

Europe unfortunately is not so free of GMOs and with the detachment of European people it gets more and more vulnerable.