GLOBAL: 2 Reports At Odds On Biotech Crops

Dispute Is Over Use of Pesticides
Publisher Name: 
The Washington Post

Take your pick:

The
widening adoption of genetically engineered crops by farmers around the
world is reducing global pesticide use, increasing agricultural yields
and bringing unprecedented prosperity and food security to millions of
the world's poorest citizens.

Or, it is fueling greater use of
pesticides, putting crop yields at risk, driving small farmers out of
business and decreasing global food security by giving a single company
control over much of the world's seed supply.

Dueling reports
released yesterday -- one by a consortium largely funded by the biotech
industry and the other by a pair of environmental and consumer groups
-- came to those diametrically different conclusions.

The
assessments highlight the controversy that still envelops agricultural
biotechnology 12 years after the first gene-altered crops debuted
commercially.

Both sides agree that genetically modified crops
are gaining ground. More than 280 million acres of them were planted in
23 countries last year, a 12 percent growth in acreage and an increase
of two countries compared with 2006.

Most are endowed with a bacterial gene that protects plants against a leading weed killer, Monsanto's
Roundup, allowing farmers to spray that herbicide without worrying that
it will kill their crops along with the weeds. Most of the others have
a gene that helps plants make their own insecticide, and a growing
percentage have more than one engineered trait.

But the implications of those statistics are open to interpretation.

To
the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech
Applications, which gets its funding from foundations and the biotech
industry, the numbers represent a virtual tidal wave of acceptance.

"Once
farmers have got used to this technology, they recognize the
significant benefits," said Clive James, chairman of ISAAA's board of
directors and author of the new "Global Status of Commercialized
Biotech/GM Crops: 2007." In a teleconference call, James said more than
90 percent of farmers in China and India who planted engineered varieties in 2006 did so again last year -- evidence, he said, of their enthusiasm.

"Already
those farmers who began adopting biotech crops a few years ago are
beginning to see socioeconomic advantages compared to their peers,"
including better access to health care and higher school enrollment for
their children, James said. Biotech crops will be essential, he added,
if the world is to achieve the U.N. Millennium Development Goal of cutting poverty and hunger in half by 2015.

Not so fast, said Bill Freese, a science policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety, a District-based consumer organization that, with the environmental group Friends of the Earth, produced its own report, "Who Benefits from GM Crops?: The Rise in Pesticide Use."

Countries
worldwide are largely shunning biotech crops, Freese said in an
interview, with virtually all the increased acreage in a handful
countries such as Argentina and Brazil
that are growing "Roundup-ready" soybeans on huge corporate farms --
not for poor people but for export to rich countries and as animal feed.

Meanwhile, Freese said, studies such as a recent one in the journal Nature
Biotechnology have found that insecticide-exuding Bt cotton is
increasingly failing to control insects, so farmers "end up having to
buy pesticides anyway, after paying roughly threefold more for the bt
cotton seeds."

Each camp accused the other of using data selectively.

James
said that farmers reaped $7 billion in benefits from biotech crops in
2006. He said that because of those crops, 289,000 fewer metric tons of
the active ingredient in pesticides were applied to fields between 1996
and 2006, resulting in a 15 percent reduction in negative environmental
effects. Huge amounts of fuel were saved by not having to spray those
pesticides, shrinking carbon dioxide emissions by 2.6 billion pounds in
2006, equivalent to taking half a million cars off the road, he said.

The
Friends of the Earth report says that the growing use of
Roundup-resistant crops has brought a 15 percent increase in the use of
that herbicide on soybeans, cotton and corn from 1994 to 2005, with a
28 percent jump in 2006 alone.

Meanwhile, the resistance gene has
spread to several weed species, making them immune to the herbicide.
And some biotech genes have contaminated conventional crops, forcing
major recalls and losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars, Freese
and others noted.

"Significantly, biotechnology companies have
not commercially introduced a single GM crop with increased yield,
enhanced nutrition, drought tolerance or salt tolerance," the report
finds.

Hope Shand of the ETC Group, a civil society organization based in Montreal, said that as the number of biotech acres has swelled, the seed industry has shrunk.

"In
2006, Monsanto's biotech seeds and traits accounted for 88 percent of
the total world area devoted to genetically modified crops," she said.
"This is a staggering level of corporate control over the world's seed
supply."

AMP Section Name:Food and Agriculture
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