Much of the attention on biotech crops in 2005 focused on the billionth acre of biotech crops planted in early May and harvested in early October. These milestones confirmed that biotech crops are now firmly established as part of food production systems worldwide. Events of recent months show how increased acceptance of biotech crops continues to be a combination of politics and economics.
The degree of political influence on public policies for biotech was seen again in the recent announcement by Germany’s Minister of Agriculture that three types of biotech corn resistant to the corn borer were granted legal regulatory approval. This was not the result of new scientific or economic information about the role of biotech corn in the food supply. The approvals occurred because of changes in the governing political coalition that resulted in a member of the Green Party who served as the Minister of Agriculture and supported organic farming being replaced with one from the Christian Social Union Party who supports the use of biotech crops. This change is still minor in relation to the complex EU and German regulatory requirements that are placed on the production of biotech crops.
An economic shift is occurring a little north of Germany in Sweden. Swedish Meats, a cooperative owned by 24,000 livestock farmers which has a 65 percent slaughtering market share, has decided to end is 10-year ban on the use of biotech feed products by its farmers. This change is caused by the declining market supply of non-biotech soybeans and soybean meal, particularly with Brazil approving the planting of biotech soybeans. The cooperative believes that non-biotech soybean meal prices could double in 2006. Major consumer resistance is not expected because consumers already purchase meats from other countries were biotech feeds are used.
At the Fifth International Genetics Symposium in Manila, Philippines in November it was announced that Iran has released the first biotech rice for commercial production. This was a major surprise because Iran was not on most lists of countries pursuing commercialization of biotech crops. China was generally expected to be the first country to announce commercialization of biotech rice because much scientific work has been done and only political decisions remained. Iran actually released the biotech rice, a local variety with a stem borer resistant gene, in 2004 after 10 years of research. Several thousand hectares were planted in 2004 and 2005. Yields for this variety of rice are low at 2 metric tons per hectare, and the biotech rice yields at least 10 percent more while reducing chemical applications. Higher yielding varieties will be made biotech as part of Iran’s ultimate goal of raising overall rice yields to six tons per acre to become self sufficient in rice. Iran has indicated interest in helping other developing countries to use biotech rice.
The government of Pakistan recently announced that farmers will be allowed to grow Bt cotton in 2006. The University of Punjab also had field trials in 2005 of Bt Basmati rice that has shown full resistance to yellow stem borer and rice leaf folder. Pakistan’s National Biosafety Committee oversees risk assessments for all biotech crops.
The lack of a biotechnology regulatory structure and limited funds for biotech research have been two of the greatest impediments to greater use of biotech crops in developing countries. Research has been a particular challenge for “orphan crops” that do not benefit from extensive research by private biotech companies. A major advance occurred in June when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced research grants under the Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative which encouraged research groups from developed and developing countries to work together. The Super Sorghum Project and the BioCasssava Plus group are funded by the Gates challenge.
All of this hopeful news is slightly tempered by the 56 percent favorable vote in November in Switzerland to impose a five-year ban on commercial cultivation of biotech crops. Research is allowed to continue, but little is expected to be done. Of course, Switzerland does not face the economic realities of feeding millions of low-income people as Iran and countries in Africa face everyday. They also have high incomes that allow them to buy food anywhere in the world.
The success of biotech crops in the U.S. and around the world are so taken for granted that research reports that quantify the benefits get much less attention than a few years ago. In early December the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy in Washington, DC released its third annual report on the benefits of biotech in the U.S for the 2004 crop. As expected, production of food and fiber increased by 6.6 billion pounds, costs were reduced by $1.7 billion and pesticide use declined by 62.0 million pounds of active ingredients. If these outcomes were not expected, U.S. producers would have abandoned biotech crops several years ago.
The future of biotech crops was best summarized in the December 20, 2005 edition of The Economist. In an extensive article on wheat as a food staple and the need to feed 10 billion people per year 30 years from now, the authors ended by saying, “That will mean either better yields or less rainforest – which is why fertilizers, pesticides and transgenes are the best possible protectors of the planet. The story of wheat is not finished yet.” Biotech crops are now a mainstream technology recognized around the world as part of the solution to feeding a growing world population in a resource efficient manner that minimizes environmental impacts.