Biotechnology companies say their seeds offer a green answer to the threat of global food shortages. But the evidence for that claim is mixed at best

Over recent decades, western consumers have reaped the benefits of a farming revolution and its plentiful harvest. The vast economies of scale delivered by agro farming and globalisation have led to a downward trend in food prices, creating the illusion that food can only get cheaper.

But the cost of cheap food has been high. Contamination, degradation and the depletion of finite natural resources have been the direct result of greater mechanisation, intensive use of inputs and extensive irrigation systems. Now, as oil and gas fields near exhaustion, the days of input-dependent farming appear to be numbered.

Yet while the rest of the world contemplates the pending food scarcity and climate change crises, biotechnology companies are quietly confident that they hold the solution. The industry asserts that genetically modified crops enable better pest control, reduced spraying, safety for non-target species, higher stress tolerance and more consistent yields. In short, the industry believes that green biotechnologies provide a secure and sustainable food and energy solution.

Zero tolerance

A widely held view is that Europe’s stance on GM greatly influences that of the rest of the world. If Europe decides to relax its rigid GM regulations, the biotech industry will see significant gains elsewhere as well. It appears that current market conditions may provide biotech companies with the leverage needed to break into these markets.

Referring to the European Union’s rejection of shipments of livestock feed contaminated with GM “Hercules Maize” last year, Nathalie Moll, executive director at EuropaBio, a European biotech industry association, says the EU’s resistance to GM produce – in particular, Europe’s “zero tolerance” on GM-contaminated grain imports – may further drive up food prices. She predicts: “The zero tolerance policy is likely to bring the European livestock industry to its knees.”

Moll says the current market share of GM technology in the Americas, from where Europe imports the bulk of its livestock grain, will be augmented by a batch of “Roundup Ready” seeds – seeds genetically modified to contain the glyphosate-based herbicide, Roundup – due to hit the markets in 2009. She suggests that EU resistance to GM may result in Europe switching from being a net exporter of meat to a net importer. This could have staggering implications for the rest of the world in terms of food prices.

Biotech and biofuels

Competing demand for coarse grain from the biofuels industry and for livestock feed has placed an upward pressure on grain prices, creating a knock-on effect of higher meat prices. The increase has been to the extent that last year, US beef and pork producers called for the non-renewal of tax credits for ethanol and import tariffs on ethanol.

In the US, 73 per cent of maize, 87 per cent of cotton and 91 per cent of soya is grown from GM seed, according to current figures published by the Economic Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture. All three are key biofuel crops.

Brent Erickson, executive director at Biotech Industry Organization (BIO), says increased demand for cellulosic ethanol has led to research into enhancing existing crops, such as maize, with enzymes specifically geared towards ethanol production.

He says that while biofuels will lower the cost of farming inputs, higher yielding GM crops will simultaneously prevent a shift in acreage out of food and into fuel feedstock production, given that biotechnology can make existing acreage more productive.

But a recent report published by Advanced Economic Solutions, a consulting company for the food industry, suggests otherwise. In the US, maize earmarked for ethanol production now accounts for 25 per cent of total maize use. In light of the 20 per cent increase in the number of maize acres planted in 2007, an “acreage battle” is highly likely, concludes the report. It also revealed that a key driver behind the inflated price of maize and other food inputs has been ethanol production.

Companies such as Inventure Chemicals are developing a variety of second-generation feedstocks, including algae, to create biodiesel and ethanol. Algae feedstock is more cost-effective than other biofuel feedstocks, says Mark Tegen, Inventure’s chief executive.

A new strain of eucalypt engineered by a team of US and Taiwanese scientists at the Taiwan Forestry Research Institute has been designed to sequester three times the carbon of traditional species.

However, a research paper published in September last year casts doubts on the viability of biofuels altogether. Highlighting the area of land required to produce a unit of motive power, it revealed that sugarcane ethanol requires 214 square metres while eucalypt cellulosic ethanol requires 1,917 square metres. A photovoltaic cell – an electric solar panel – requires only three square metres.

The paper, authored by Tad Patzek at the University of California, Berkley, demonstrates that each square metre of solar cells could replace up to 650 hectares of biofuel feedstock plantations. It concluded: “Even mediocre solar cells … are at least 100 times more efficient than the current major agrofuel systems.”

In March last year, European heads of state set a target of meeting 5.75 per cent of transport fuel needs from biofuel by 2010. A study carried out by the directorate general for agriculture revealed that this would result in a switch of almost 20 per cent of currently available arable land out of food and into biofuel crops. In this respect, the promise of enhanced land productivity and second-generation biofuel crops could gain greater purchase for the biotech industry.

Last year, US president George Bush pushed through the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which contains the new renewable fuel standard. The RFS explicitly supports production of 36 billion gallons (137 billion litres) of biofuels, including cellulosic ethanol and advanced biofuels.

Jens Riese, a biochemist and biomass expert at McKinsey Consulting, estimates that the RFS will deliver revenues to the ethanol industry of up to $70 billion, with a revenue opportunity for biotech companies of up to $5 billion.

Climate change

Higher yielding crops with lower inputs improve land efficiency with lower environmental risk, the biotech industry says. But the term “higher yield” does not relate to physically higher yielding crops in the form of, say, three-headed maize stalks. Instead, it has to do with traits introduced to make the strains resistant to pests and herbicides.

“Bt crops” contain the naturally occurring soil bacterium bacillus thuringiensis, a pesticide that was traditionally sprayed onto crops as an insecticide. Given that Bt crops have this built-in protection, yields are higher than non-Bt crops in the absence of spraying. This, says the industry, also delivers environmental benefits, given the subsequent reduction in pesticide use.

In turn, lower spraying requirements result in fewer spray runs (relative to conventional crops). And so, according to EuropaBio, lower spraying requirements generate fuel savings. In 2005 this resulted in permanent savings in carbon dioxide emissions of about 962 million kg (arising from reduced fuel use of 356 million litres).

Herbicide tolerant crops are genetically engineered to contain the chemical herbicides bromoxynil, in the case of BXN cotton, and glyphosate (better known as “Roundup”, the herbicide manufactured by Monsanto) in the case of Roundup Ready (RR) cotton.

These crops are said to be higher yielding than conventional crops. This is only because conventional crops sprayed with these herbicides would die, along with all other plant life that the herbicide came into contact with. But because the herbicides form part of the plant’s genetic make-up, the BXN and RR varieties can withstand these herbicides.

Thus, the introductions of BXN cotton and Roundup Ready cotton are accompanied by an increase in the use of bromoxynil and Roundup, with a decline in the use of other herbicides that had been used previously.

Monsanto, and indeed much of the agricultural and biotech sectors tout glyphosate-based herbicides as herbicides of “low toxicity and environmental friendliness”. The biotech industry claims that GMX and RR seeds enable farmers to reduce their ecological footprint, by applying herbicides of lower toxicity at a reduced volume.

However, a paper published by Caroline Cox in the “Journal of Pesticide Reform”, October 2000, demonstrates how glyphosate-containing products are acutely toxic to animals, including humans and are classified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as “highly persistent”.

Does GM deliver?

According to Dr Charles Benbrook, a consultant on agricultural policy, science and regulatory issues, “Contrary to industry’s claims, [the] RR soyabean requires more, not less, herbicide than [a] conventional soyabean.” His research reveals RR soyabean crops to produce 5 per cent to 10 per cent less yield per acre as against other identical varieties grown under similar soil conditions.

EuropaBio’s Nathalie Moll also admitted that greater applications of Roundup herbicide were being applied. She says that is because “farmers have rotated RR crops, usually soya and maize, to the point that the weeds themselves are now Roundup resistant, which has resulted in much higher applications of Roundup along with a host of other chemicals”.

The International Survey of Herbicide-Resistant Weeds indicates that, globally, 181 species of Roundup-resistant “superweeds” can be found in about 270,000 fields. Moll added that although Roundup “kills everything”, it is far less toxic and takes half the time to biodegrade than other available herbicides.

The assertion that GM crops in general yield higher productivity has been challenged by several studies, including one carried out by the US Department of Agriculture. This particular study suggests that yields of GM crops are lower than traditional crops and that the use of inputs (herbicides and pesticides) has, in fact, increased.

Can GM feed the world?

Annette Josten, a spokeswoman for Bayer CropScience, says that from the climate change perspective, biotechnologies have a lot to offer, in particular, drought-resistant crops. She said that while Bayer was working on drought-resistant strains of canola, rice, cotton and maize, none were likely to be market-ready before 2015.

Monsanto claims that its drought-tolerant maize being trialled in South Africa may be ready for commercialisation as early as 2010 and studies on drought-tolerant soyabeans and cotton are in the pipeline.

But independent studies suggest that this is unlikely. The African Centre for BioSafety report on Monsanto’s drought-tolerant maize concluded: “The coding for drought tolerance in particular is a long way off for current scientific knowledge, with some geneticists admitting that even hoping for drought tolerance in the next 10 or 20 years may be too ambitious.”

Pete Riley at GM Freeze, an alliance of UK organisations against GM technologies, dismisses the possibility of drought-resistant crops, calling it a “load of rubbish”. He says: “If it doesn’t rain, the seed doesn’t germinate. If, by some miracle that seeds do germinate in dry conditions, it has nothing to do with the GM trait, but will be because of the parent plant.”

Neither Monsanto nor Bayer LifeSciences was willing to provide any documentation to support their claims to drought-resistant crop strains. Nor were BIO and EuropaBio forthcoming with any evidence substantiating drought resistance in crops.

The market for biofuels could unlock the global market for the green biotech industry. But current research has thrown up a raft of reasons as to why the biofuel model is inherently at odds with its goal of providing sustainable renewables. Competition for land resources, deforestation, diversion of food crops into fuel crops, to name a few. Hence the promise of significant gains for the biotech industry on the back of biofuels may yet prove tenuous.

Green biotech – going global

· By 2015, more than 20 million farmers will plant 200 million hectares of biotech crops in about 40 countries.

· At the beginning of 2007, biotech crop area accounted for 102 million hectares worldwide.

· Since its introduction in 1996, there has been a 60-fold increase in the application of biotechnology – the highest-ever adoption-rate of any crop technology.

· Worldwide, 10.3 million farmers plant biotech crops.

· More than 90 per cent of farmers growing biotech crops last year – 9.3 million – were small, resource-poor farmers from the developing world.

· The growth of biotech crop adoption was substantially higher in the developing world at 21 per cent versus the industrialised nations where adoption grew just 9 per cent.

· Developing countries now account for 40 per cent of the global biotech crop area.

Source: International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications

Top ten GM seed companies

The top three companies – Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta – account for $8.6 billion or 44 per cent of the total proprietary seed market.

Company 2006 seed sales (millions0
1. Monsanto (US) $4,028
2. Dupont (US) $2,781
3. Syngenta (Switzerland) $1,743
4. Groupe Limagrain (France) $1,035
5. Land O’Lakes (US) $756
6. KWS AG (Germany) $615
7. Bayer Crop Science (Germany) $430
8. Delta & Pine Land (US) (acquisition by Monsanto pending) $418
9. Sakata (Japan) $401
10. DLF-Trifolium (Denmark) $352

Source: ETC Group, action group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration, Canada

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