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Will Genetically Modified Crops Make Inroads With Prices High?
20 May 2008

The genie may be coming out of the bottle where genetically modified crops are concerned.

Soaring world food prices appear to be chipping away at public and commercial objections to GM crops that sharply raise yields and slash growing costs for corn, wheat and other staples at a time when the biggest spike in commodities prices since the 1970s is driving up food prices worldwide...

"I think the debate about higher prices and being able to meet the demand of people in the world for food is a perfect opportunity to make the case (for GM crops)," Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said at a recent global farming conference in Britain.

"GM crops aren't a silver bullet. But we think biotech can be a very beneficial tool in solving the world food crisis," said Monsanto spokesman Brad Mitchell.

Hardier Crops, Bigger Yields

The seeds that underlie GM crops are spliced with genes from other organisms to help them resist insects, herbicides and plant diseases. They can be made to grow on less fertilizer and water with less pollution.

In addition to cutting cultivating costs, this means that waste and drought-stricken lands can be tapped to boost food production. Another promising area: growing GM crops that are more nutritious than typical grains or vegetables.

Mitchell says Monsanto has pilot projects to develop more drought-resistant GM crops, those that use far less nitrogen fertilizer and others that produce far-higher yields.

The company also is getting ready to offer a type of GM corn that can be grown in drought-hit regions in the U.S. and overseas.

"We're also developing heart-healthy oils that are made mainly from GM soybeans."

DuPont (DD) has similar efforts. In March, it announced the development of a new soybean cooking oil made from GM soybeans with very low trans fat content. Novartis and Syngenta also have new GM strains of corn, maize, rice and other grains on the ways.

Farm consultant Cropnosis says the agricultural biotech market grew to more than $6 billion in 2006 from $3 billion in 2001. It's expected to reach $8.4 billion by 2011.

Felicia Wu, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health says a powerful benefit of GM crops is that they can increase yields.

"That will have the effect of increasing supply which is what is necessary (to bring down prices)," said Wu, a food safety specialist.

Seventy-five percent of the field corn grown in the U.S. comes from genetically engineered strains, said National Corn Growers Association spokesman Ken Colombini. He says this proves how beneficial GM can be in boosting all kinds of agricultural production.

"One thing we've seen is an incredible increase in corn yields, and GM is one of the major forces that's behind these increased yields," he said.

Boosting Nutrition

GM crops are on tap with more nutrition.

University of Pittsburgh's Wu says most public fears about eating food from GM crops are unfounded. She says, for example, that there's no evidence that GM-based foods cause cancer.

"It floors me how many people are opposed to agricultural biotechnology without producing any rationale for why they're against it," Wu said.

Still Unpopular In The West

At the same time, she says those who advocate using GM crops to ease the food crisis have their work cut out for them.

According to a CBS News/New York Times poll in early May, 53% of Americans say they won't buy genetically modified food. The irony is that many of them already do.

"If people and their governments remain very much against the use of GM crops, it's not clear to me how more widespread use of GM crops can be accomplished."

Monsanto's Mitchell says force of necessity is the main argument in favor of using more GM crops.

"We'll have an additional 3 billion people on this planet in 40 years and they're all going to need food, energy and clothing, and a good part of that will come from agriculture," Mitchell said.

Ted Schettler warns that technological cures like GM crops rarely deliver on all their promises.

"They often have unintended consequences, and in this case are likely to divert attention from more fundamental causes of food shortages and maldistribution," said Schettler, science director at the nonprofit Science and Environmental Health Network.