KANSAS CITY — The recent surprise finding of unapproved bioengineered wheat plants growing in an Oregon field caught the attention of the trade, briefly brought the Monsanto antagonists out in force, resulted in more class action lawsuits, brought a halt in soft white winter wheat exports from the Pacific Northwest to some countries and added fuel to the long-running debate on the use of bioengineered crops.
Globally, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) estimates 81% of global soybean and cotton plantings, 35% of corn and 30% of canola/rapeseed were of bioengineered varieties in 2012. Those are known as the “big four” bioengineered crops.
Bioengineered crops, the products made from them, the food items containing ingredients from them and the companies that develop and market bioengineered seeds are not without their detractors with numerous “anti-G.M.O.” web sites, a seemingly constant filing of lawsuits and ongoing attempts to pass labeling laws.
The controversy was obvious recently when the prestigious 27th World Food Prize was awarded June 19 to three scientists, Marc Van Montagu, founder and chairman of the Institute for Plant Biotechnology Outreach, Ghent, Belgium, Mary-Dell Chilton, founder and distinguished science fellow, Syngenta Biotechnology Inc., and Robert T. Fraley, executive vice-president and chief technology officer for Monsanto.
“Their research is making it possible for farmers to grow crops with: improved yields; resistance to insects and disease; and the ability to tolerate extreme variations in climate,” the organization said, noting recognition “for their independent, individual breakthrough achievements in founding, developing and applying modern agricultural biotechnology.”
The recognition of Dr. Fraley especially drew both cheers and jeers, evidenced by editorials and letters to the editor in the Des Moines Register: “Food Prize honor is long overdue; Food Prize choice is cause for dismay; Food Prize goes too far in honoring Monsanto; Excellent honorees chosen as world’s food needs grow.” (See related story at http://www.ittybittyurl.com/Ui2).
Dr. Fraley and his team at Monsanto led the development and introduction in 1996 of bioengineered soybeans resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, known as “Roundup Ready” soybeans that allowed farmers to spray entire fields with the highly-effective herbicide without harming the crop. Glyphosate tolerant crops, including cotton, sugar beets and others, are the most widely bioengineered crops grown globally.
While St. Louis-based Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company, is the name most synonymous with leading the charge in developing and marketing bioengineered seeds, other major players are BASF Plant Science, Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences L.L.C., DuPont Pioneer as well as Syngenta.
Some estimate as much as 70% of processed foods in U.S. supermarkets contain ingredients from bioengineered products, which lies at the heart of much of the debate and push for labeling laws.
Until the discovery of bioengineered wheat in Oregon was announced May 29, the most recent major event on the front may have been the defeat on Nov. 6, 2012, of the “Mandatory Labeling of Genetically Engineered Food Initiative” known as Proposition 37 that sought widespread labeling of bioengineered products and food items containing material from such ingredients in California.
But the labeling push is far from dead. About half of the states have or are considering labeling laws for foods containing bioengineered products, and legislation of a national scope was introduced into both the Senate and the House earlier this year. Connecticut became the first state to require special labeling of foods containing bioengineered ingredients in June, although the law requires four other northeast states, including one on its border, to pass similar labeling laws. It could then go into effect Oct. 1 in the year after the “trigger” requirements are reached.
Also on the retail front, Whole Foods said in March it would require food products sold in its stores to state on the label if they contain ingredients produced through “agricultural biotechnology.”
The issue in Oregon, meanwhile, isn’t finished. Several class action lawsuits have been filed, but how the plants came to be growing in Oregon remains a mystery, although it was confirmed to be variety MON71800 (Roundup Ready) developed by Monsanto, which discontinued its bioengineered wheat development and testing in the United States in 2005. Monsanto has cooperated with the government for testing of the wheat. Neither the company nor the government has publically ruled out the possibility of “environmental sabotage” meant to create opposition to bioengineered crops.
The U.S.D.A. has called the discovery a “single isolated incident,” assured U.S. trading partners there was no indication of bioengineered wheat in commerce and continues to investigate. Still, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have not imported soft white wheat from the Pacific Northwest since the discovery.
Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries on July 2 laid out a plan for the resumption of U.S. soft white winter wheat imports from the Pacific Northwest, according to a
report in Oregon’s Capital Press. Those plans included more investigation and information on the discovery, a visit by a MAFF team to the affected area in Oregon, testing for bioengineered wheat and establishment of an export inspection system. There was no timetable for the plan to be implemented.
While no bioengineered wheat is approved for production in the United States or globally, some in the wheat industry have sought development of such wheat because they contend declining acreage the past several years was in part the result of wheat’s disadvantage to bioengineered corn and soybeans. The issue of limited export markets for bioengineered wheat remains. A similar situation remains for rice, with no bioengineered varieties grown in the United States, and like wheat, also had a discovery of an unapproved variety a few years ago.
The fact remains that about 90% of the area planted to corn and cotton, about 93% of area planted to soybeans and about 95% of area planted to sugar beets in the United States are of bioengineered varieties. In addition to the “big four,” other bioengineered crops in the United States include alfalfa, papaya, squash and the aforementioned sugar beets.
The U.S.D.A. randomly asks farmers as part of its June Agricultural Survey “if they planted corn, soybeans or upland cotton seed that, through biotechnology, is resistant to herbicides, insects or both.” The insect resistant varieties include only those containing bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) but may contain more than one gene that may be resistant to different types of insects. Conventionally bred herbicide tolerant varieties are excluded, the U.S.D.A. said. The vast majority of bioengineered seeds planted are “stacked” gene varieties that contain both insect and herbicide resistant genes rather than just insect resistant or just herbicide tolerant genes.
In its June 28 Acreage report, the U.S.D.A. estimated the area planted to bioengineered varieties of corn in the United States in 2013 at about 87.6 million acres, or 90% of total corn planted area, up two percentage points from last year. That total included 5% of the area planted to insect resistant only varieties (down from 15% in 2012), 14% planted to herbicide tolerant only varieties (down from 21%) and 71% planted to stacked varieties (up from 52% last year).
The U.S.D.A. includes 48 states (all but Alaska and Hawaii) in its corn estimating program. In the breakout of the 13 major states that account for 85% of total U.S. corn planted acres, the percentage of bioengineered planted corn increased in 10 states, decreased in two states (North Dakota and Wisconsin) and was unchanged in one state (top-producing Iowa). The percentage in the 35 states lumped into “other states” was estimated at 88%, up 3 percentage points from 2012.
South Dakota had the highest percentage of acres planted to bioengineered corn at 96% (up from 94% in 2012), followed by North Dakota at 94% (down from 96% last year), Nebraska at 93% (up from 91%) and Missouri at 92% (up from 86%). Iowa, Kansas and Minnesota all came in at 91% and Michigan at 90%. Of the 13 major states, Wisconsin had the lowest percentage of corn area planted to bioengineered varieties at 84% (down from 86% in 2012), followed by Indiana at 85% (up 1%), Ohio at 85% (up from 76%) and Illinois and Texas at 89%.
For soybeans the focus is just on herbicide tolerant varieties about 72.3 million acres, or 93% of total soybean area, planted to bioengineered varieties in the 31 states included in the U.S.D.A.’s soybean estimating program. That total was unchanged from 2012, although the percentage declined in 8 of the 14 major states and in the 17 “other” states. Growers in Mississippi planted 98% bioengineered varieties, the highest percentage of the 14 major states, followed by Arkansas and South Dakota at 97%, Nebraska at 96% and North Dakota at 94%. The lowest percentage of bioengineered varieties was planted in Ohio and Wisconsin, both at 89%.
Like corn, upland cotton includes insect, herbicide and stacked varieties. Those three combined equaled 90% of total cotton area planted, down 4 percentage points from 2012, the U.S.D.A. said, with the largest decline in Texas at 85%, down from 91%.
The U.S.D.A. noted its biotechnology estimates were subject to sampling variability because all farming operations planting bioengineered varieties are not included in the sample. But the relative standard error is small at 0.4% for all bioengineered corn and soybean varieties.
Despite years of lawsuits attempting to block the use of bioengineered sugar beet seeds, the vast majority of sugar beet area is planted to Roundup Ready seed. Although the U.S.D.A. does not survey for bioengineered sugar beets, the trade and the Sugar Industry Biotech Council estimates about 95% of total planted area of 1,207,600 acres in 2013 is planted to Roundup Ready sugar beets. Adoption of bioengineered sugar beet seeds by U.S. growers was by far the most rapid of all major bioengineered crops grown in the United States with government approval for the seed occurring as recently as 2005. The rapid acceptance was largely the result of reduced production costs related to Roundup Ready seeds, in part because fewer trips across the field were needed for weed control.
Shortly after bioengineered sugar beet seeds were approved, several groups opposed to bioengineered crops filed lawsuits against the U.S.D.A. in an attempt to block continued use of the seed. Those attempts finally came to an end in November 2012 with dismissal of one of the key cases involved in the legal actions, although the possibility of further legal action persists.
The United States remains the leading country in terms of bioengineered crops planted with about 175 million acres and its average adoption rate of 90% across all crops in 2012, the ISAAA said in its latest annual update. Brazil was second with about 92 million acres, but led the world with the largest increase (21%) from 2011. Argentina was third with 60 million acres and Canada fourth with 30 million acres.
Despite restrictions on many bioengineered commodities, the European Union planted a record 322,678 acres of bioengineered maize (corn) in 2012, of which 90% was in Spain, the ISAAA said.
Globally, much of the world now depends on bioengineered commodities. In its latest update, the ISAAA said for the first time in 2012 developing countries grew more bioengineered crops (52%) than did industrial countries (48%). The growth rate for bioengineered crops in developing countries was 21.75 million acres, or 11%, in 2012 compared with 4 million acres, or 3%, in industrial countries, the ISAAA said. Twenty of the 28 countries growing bioengineered crops in 2012 were developing countries, including Sudan and Cuba, which planted such crops for the first time. Three countries dropped off the list in 2012 — Germany, Sweden and Poland. More than 90% of the 17.3 million farmers growing bioengineered crops in 2012 were considered small resource-poor farmers in developing countries, the organization said. The number included 7.2 million small farmers each in India and China growing bioengineered cotton.
Since first being commercialized in 1996, area planted to bioengineered crops has increased every year, the ISAAA said. The global area planted to bioengineered crops in 2012 was 425.75 million acres, up 25.75 million, or 6%, from 2012. The area was up 100 fold from 4.25 million acres in 1996. Of the 28 countries growing bioengineered crops, 17 grow corn, 15 cotton, 11 soybeans, 4 canola, 2 sugar beets, 2 papayas and a limited number plant alfalfa, squash, tomatoes, sweet peppers and poplar trees, although there are numerous other bioengineered crops, including vegetables, grown around the world.
Adoption of bioengineered crops has been slow in Africa with only four countries currently on the list — Burkina Faso, Egypt, South Africa and Sudan. Area increased 26% to 7.25 million acres in 2012, the ISAAA said. Field trials were under way in five other countries.
“The lack of appropriate, science-based and cost/time-effective regulatory systems continue to be the major constraint to adoption,” the ISAAA said.
Although only 28 countries planted bioengineered crops in 2012, another 31 countries (59 in total) have had 2,497 regulatory approvals of bioengineered crops, including 1,129 for food use, 813 for feed use and 555 for planting or release into the environment since 1996, the ISAAA said. The United States has the most approved events with 196, then Japan with 182, Canada with 131 and Mexico with 122. The E.U. has approved 67 events.
While area planted to bioengineered crops has increased significantly since 1996, most focus has been on insect resistant and herbicide tolerant traits. But the ISAAA sees drought tolerant corn as the “most important trait that will be commercialized in the second decade of commercialization, 2006 to 2015, and beyond because it is, by far, the single most important constraint to increased productivity for crops worldwide.”
Some drought tolerant corn varieties have been on the market since 2011, although considerable testing continues.
The ISAAA also sees bioengineered crops as a potential offset to global climate change and a major contributor to sustainability. While global warming remains a highly controversial and debatable topic, “green biotechnology offers a solution to decrease greenhouse gasses and therefore mitigates climate change,” the ISAAA said. The advantages largely are the result of less energy used for weed and insect control, as well as for no-till production of crops, which also reduces erosion and soil carbon loss.
“Improved crops resilient to extreme environments caused by climate change are expected in a few years to a decade,” the ISAAA said. “Hence, food production during this era should be given another boost to sustain food supply for the doubling population.”
Bryan Walsh, senior editor at Time, summed up the debate well in a May 14 article, “G.M. foods seem to act as a symbol: you’re pro-agribusiness or anti-science. While G.M. crops haven’t yet realized their initial promise and have been dominated by agribusiness, there is reason to continue to use and develop them to help meet the enormous challenge of sustainability feeding a growing planet.”
That’s an astute observation considering a recent study from the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota that concluded global crop demand may double by 2050 due to increasing population, diet shifts and biofuels consumption, but at the current rate of yield increases, production would increase only about 50% by that time.