Des Moines Register
By Philip Brasher
May 17, 2009

Washington, D.C. – Congress has largely stayed out of the battles over genetically engineered crops, but that could change with a foreign aid bill that could target research money to agricultural biotechnology.

The bill, approved by a Senate committee earlier this spring, is aimed at boosting spending on foreign agricultural development and nutrition programs from $750 million in 2010 to $2.5 billion by 2014. The bill spells out that the money can go to "biotechnological advances appropriate to local ecological conditions," including genetically modified seeds.

Aid groups say the money is needed to help farmers in Africa and elsewhere to increase food production as the world population grows, the planet warms and more crops are used for biofuels.

The legislation appears to be in line with the Obama administration’s priorities. The administration has proposed doubling agricultural aid to $1 billion, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has pledged to push for greater use of agricultural biotechnology.

But critics of biotechnology are angry that the increased U.S. aid could be used to promote the use of genetically engineered seeds, and they’re pushing lawmakers to strip the provision from the bill.

The legislation "isn’t just about feeding the hungry, it’s about advancing the interests of U.S. agribusinesses," Annie Shattuck, a policy analyst for a group called Food First, wrote recently.

"The question is whether there is any reason to insist that foreign aid be genetic engineering, or genetically modified crops," said Margaret Mellon, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

China and India are rapidly adopting biotech crops. But many countries in Africa have been reluctant to approve the use biotech seeds for fear they would lose export sales to the European Union, where there has long been strong consumer resistance to the technology.

The Senate bill’s main sponsor, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., uses genetically modified seeds on his family’s farm and firmly believes they could help poor farmers as well.

Lugar cites a recent book by Wellesley College professor Robert Paarlberg, "Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa."

Paarlberg calls for increased agricultural research in Africa and criticizes the role anti-biotech groups have played in slowing development there.

Biotech companies have had nothing to do with pushing the bill, Lugar spokesman Andy Fisher said.

Bread for the World, an anti-hunger advocacy group backing Lugar’s bill, has been hearing from some religious organizations upset about the biotech provision.

"We should not be preemptively taking things off the table," said Charles Uphaus of the Bread for the World Institute, the group’s policy analysis arm. "It should be up to countries in Africa and Asia to make their own decisions."

Oxfam America, another aid group that pushes for increased agricultural help, backs the bill although it doesn’t have a position on biotech.

Gawain Kripke, a policy analyst for the group, said criticism of the bill over that provision is "a bit myopic."

"We’ve seen a neglect of agriculture for decades in development circles and particularly in development aid," Kripke said.

There is no timetable for the bill to go to the Senate floor, and it’s prospects in the House are uncertain as well. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., is preparing a similar agricultural aid bill in the House.

Some of the urgency that was behind the agricultural aid issue last year has waned recently as commodity prices have softened.

In the end, that may be a bigger problem for the bill than getting sidetracked over the issue of genetically engineered seeds.

That means the real question will be how hard the administration and congressional leaders are willing to push to get this enacted.