In Lean Times, Biotech Grains Are Less Taboo
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.
“We cannot afford it,” said a corn buyer at Kato Kagaku, a Japanese maker of corn starch and corn syrup.
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.
In Britain, the National Beef Association, which represents cattle farmers, issued a statement this month demanding that “all resistance” to such crops “be abandoned immediately in response to shifts in world demand for food, the growing danger of global food shortages and the prospect of declining domestic animal production.”
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.