For years, agricultural biotechnology companies and industry analysts predicted that genetic engineering would spawn a cornucopia of heartier crops, more-healthful oils, delayed-ripening fruits, and many other more nutritious and better-tasting foods. Instead new products are only advancements on production crops and the promise of biotechnology is unfulfilled.
The report,Withering on the Vine: Will Agricultural Biotech's Promises Bear Fruit?, shows that the number of GE crops crops going through the regulatory review process dropped sharply between the late 1990s and the early 2000s. Also, the federal government is taking longer to review GE crops, according to CSPI, even though most of the recent crops have been slight variations of previously approved crops. CSPI found that the products reviewed in the 2000s have mostly been crops with the same or similar genes as the first generation of GE crops commercialized in the late 1990s, such as insect-resistant or herbicide- tolerant versions of soybean, corn, cotton, and canola.
"The biotech industry is quick to bemoan government regulation, claiming it is too onerous," says Gregory Jaffe, director of biotechnology policy for CSPI and the author of the report. "The industry promised a bounty of beneficial crops, but the biotech cupboard remains pretty bare, except for the few crops that have benefited grain, oilseed, and cotton farmers."
The National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) refuted the report, saying that in reality, a number of new biotech products are in the regulatory pipeline, and new technologies under development will undoubtedly offer even greater promise for farmers and consumers, NCGA leaders say. Darrin Ihnen, chair of NCGA's Biotechnology Working Group, says second-generation biotech traits, such as drought tolerance and nutritional enhancement, are nearing the commercialization phase and will be available to the world's growers in the near future.
"Those who believe that biotech crops hold great potential to help human health, farmers, and the environment should be concerned that few new crops are coming down the pike," says Jaffe. "At the same time, we should work to replace the voluntary, antiquated, and inefficient hodgepodge of a regulatory system with a mandatory system that takes risk into account. Those crops expressing genes known to be safe should be expedited, freeing up government officials to focus on novel crops where the risks may be greater."
Ihnen notes that 201 new biotech events for crops ranging from corn and cotton to potatoes and eggplant are under development in 15 developing countries, according to an article in the January issue of Nature Biotechnology.
Additionally, researchers at England's University of Reading say biotech crops are offering significant economic benefits to resource-poor, smallholder farmers in nations like South Africa. This corroborates the results of the ISAAA study, which reports that approximately 8.25 million farmers in 17 countries planted biotech crops in 2004, an 18% increase from 2003. Of the farmers who began using biotech crops in 2004, 90% were in developing countries, the study notes.
In the report CSPI also recommends increasing public investment in GE crops, particularly by applying existing technology to non-commodity crops and by expanding research on biotech crops that would benefit consumers. CSPI also urged increased government support for research on crops that would be important to developing countries and says that the agricultural biotechnology industry should make its proprietary technology freely available for public research and development efforts.
While NCGA disagreed with many points of the CSPI report, it concurs with CSPI's recommendation for increased government support and public investment into biotech research. Increased funding will facilitate expedited completion of the maize genome, which in turn will lead to development of new biotech traits for the world's farmers and consumers.