With growing opposition to GM crops has come a remarkable drop in new varieties being introduced by the agrobiotech industry. A 2 February 2005 report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), an environmental group, observes that three-quarters of federal approvals for GM crops in the United States were obtained between 1995 and 1999.
According to Gregory Jaffe, director of the Project on Biotechnology at CSPI, most of the new crops that drive GM agriculture’s growth now are cookie-cutter varieties that merely recycle the same genes for pest and herbicide resistance already used in existing products. Indeed, virtually all the GM crops grown today are different varieties of the same four crops that became available before 2000, mainly pest- or herbicide-resistant varieties of corn, cotton, soybeans, and canola.
These crops were made for and marketed specifically to farmers, who make up the industry’s key buyers. Farmers have embraced GM technology because it saves them time and money. Monsanto’s Roundup Ready crops, for instance, are resistant to the glyphosate-based herbicide Roundup. Farmers can eliminate weeds with one or two sprayings of the wide-spectrum herbicide without harming their crops.
Rob Rose, a spokesman for the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, a nonprofit research facility funded partially by the agrobiotech industry, says companies barely considered the consumers who would buy and eat GM foods in their initial marketing efforts. This proved to be a mistake, he says. When the consumer backlash started, companies were caught off-guard. “Even now, as the backlash intensifies, they haven’t come up with an effective consumer marketing strategy,” Rose says.
To improve its public image, the agro-biotech industry has more recently begun promoting the concept of extra-nutritious, environmentally resilient crops to fight world hunger. But so far, none of these so-called second-generation crops have entered the marketplace, anywhere in the world.
The second-generation crops that are in the pipeline seem to be stuck there, mainly because of market uncertainties, insiders say. For example, Monsanto is developing grains to make cooking oils with lower saturated fats and higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which are thought to protect against heart disease. But Christopher Horner, director of public affairs for Monsanto, acknowledges that these grains have distant and unknown release dates.
Universities and small research centers also develop second-generation GM crops, but they lack the resources necessary to put them on the market. The Danforth Center, for instance, has developed numerous such crops, including grains enriched with vitamin E and vegetables with enhanced folate levels, a nutrient that protects against neural tube defects in newborns as well as cancer and cardiovascular disease in adults. Center scientists have also developed a nutritionally enhanced variety of cassava, a root vegetable that is a dietary staple for hundreds of millions worldwide.
At the University of California, Berkeley, Peggy Lemaux, a faculty member in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, and her colleague Bob Buchanan recently helped create a type of GM wheat that people with wheat allergies might eat more safely. She and her colleagues at Berkeley are now working on enhancing sorghum, another staple of the world’s poor, to make it more nutritionally complete and calorie-rich.
“I want to help people,” Lemaux says. “I work for a land-grant university, and our charge is to develop varieties that help agriculture and consumers. If I can do this for countries that really need it, then that’s what I want to do.”
But Lemaux and Karel Schubert, a Danforth Center principle investigator, both acknowledge that despite the potential benefits, the commercial value of these crops is limited. Without significant financial backing, universities and research centers can’t fund the extensive regulatory and patent reviews needed to bring the products to market. But as consumers increasingly turn against GM food, Lemaux adds, industry and federal funds for second-generation crop research and development are drying up.
“Second generation crops are developed in universities, and then those projects die,” Lemaux says. “There’s a pall hanging over GM and its products, so many companies have stopped supporting fundamental research.” Her grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development has been cut from a three-year to a one-year commitment.