In Rome, Washington, D.C., and a small province in Canada, the news was not good last month for genetically modified crops.
The Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest concluded in a Feb. 2 report that biotech companies? predictions that genetic engineering would spawn a cornucopia of healthier and better-tasting crops have not come to fruition.
In ?Withering on the Vine: Will Agricultural Biotech?s Promises Bear Fruit?? CSPI reported that from 1995 to 1999, 47 GE crops completed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration?s regulatory process. From 2000 to 2004, that number dropped to 15. Also, CSPI found that most of the products reviewed in this decade have been similar to the first-generation GE crops commercialized in the 1990s.
And although CSPI noted that the FDA review process has slowed, report author Gregory Jaffe believes that?s not the only reason for the lack of new GE crops. ?The biotech industry is quick to bemoan government regulation, claiming it is too onerous,? he said. ?But the fact is that even without strict government regulations, the industry is not innovating; it is stagnating.?
Lisa Dry, spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based Biotechnology Industry Organization, said although GE agriculture ?has not expanded to the degree we would have hoped or expected,? the drought is ending. Large biotech companies are now developing new types of crops, including oils genetically engineered to be healthier and trans fat-free, she said.
European resistance to GE foods was the chief culprit in the biotech slowdown, Dry said, but she believes ?we have passed that hurdle, because resistance has not spread to the U.S. and other parts of the world.?
The CSPI report also recommended increasing government funding for research on genetically engineered crops that would benefit people in developing countries. Craig Winters, executive director of The Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit activist group, said his organization is ?totally opposed? to CSPI?s funding proposal.
Worldwide monitoring In a late January meeting in Rome, members of the United Nation?s Food and Agriculture Organization said they will help produce ?rigorously designed monitoring programs? to assess the impact of GE crops on the worldwide environment.
?FAO?s aim is to provide a tool to assist countries in making their own informed choices on the matter, as well as protect the productivity and ecological integrity of farming systems,? said Louise Fresco, FAO assistant director-general of the agriculture department.
FAO asked a group of agricultural scientists to provide preliminary guidelines for monitoring the environmental effects of existing GE crops. In addition, ?environmental organizations, farmer groups and community organizations should be actively and continuously engaged in this process,? said an FAO news release.
FAO experts said ?responsible deployment? of GE crops worldwide should include the entire process, from pre-release risk assessments to post-release monitoring. Environmental goals should include protecting soil, water and biodiversity.
Fit for a prince
Prince Edward Island, Canada?s smallest province, began holding hearings in February on GE products.
Farmers on the 2,184-square-foot island already have stopped growing GE potatoes, and some want to ban GE crops entirely. Currently, GE soybeans, corn and canola are grown on the island.
According to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., PEI Premier Pat Binns, who is also a farmer, sees a GE ban as a marketing boon for his province.
?It could be an opportunity to do something a little different if our crops were not treated in the same way as North America,? Binns told the CBC.
GE crops are legal in Canada, although several communities have passed restrictions on GE agriculture. No provinces have banned GE crops, according to The Council of Canadians, a 100,000-member watchdog group based in Ottawa.
Vicky Uhland is a Denver-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 3/p. 23