WHILE consumers continue to ask questions about the pros and cons of genetically engineered (GE) crop varieties, farmers continue to show an overwhelming preference for biotech corn, soybean and cotton varieties.
The latest data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that GE varieties now account more than 90% of all acres planted to these three staple crops.
Furthermore, according to the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), a record 17.3 million farmers in 28 countries are using seed varieties improved through biotechnology and genetic engineering, with more than 90% of those farmers considered resource-poor and living in developing countries.
"Scientific innovation and seed technology allow growers to produce the most reliable and abundant yields with less tilling of the soil and fewer applications of insecticides," explained Cathleen Enright, BIO executive vice president for food and agriculture. "These practices promote environmental sustainability, reduce on-farm fuel use, increase profit margins for U.S. farming families and keep food costs affordable for U.S. consumers."
USDA's July update, based on 2013 plantings, shows 90% of all U.S. corn acres planted to a biotech variety (Figure 1), with 71% of all corn planted to a variety with a "stack" of genes that offer tolerance to popular herbicides and resistance to key insects. This resistance, for example, allows farmers to apply fewer chemical pesticides, instead relying on the plant's genetically enhanced natural defenses to withstand insect pressure.
The adoption of GE crops in the U.S. has been fairly rapid. Based on USDA survey data, herbicide-tolerant (HT) soybeans went from 17% of U.S. soybean acreage in 1997 to 68% in 2001 and 93% for a second consecutive year in 2013 (Figure 2). Adoption appears to have plateaued at that point, for now.
HT corn was slower in taking off, however, perhaps because soybean cultivation was an extremely intensive chore for farmers relative to corn, but adoption has accelerated considerably since 2006, reaching 85% of all U.S. corn acres this year.
Insect resistance has been a significant biotech development over the past decade, with only 8% of U.S. corn acreage seeded to a corn variety containing the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) gene in 1997 but reaching 76% this year. The Bt gene produces a protein that is toxic to specific insects and provides the corn plant with lifelong protection from insects such as the European corn borer and corn rootworm.
Stacked traits have become much more popular in recent years as seed technology companies develop varieties with multiple genetic enhancements in a single seed. According to USDA, adoption rates have accelerated considerably and now account for 71% of all U.S. corn acres.
While farmers are nearly unanimous in their decision to plant seed varieties improved by genetic modification (GM), consumers are of a much more mixed mindset, particularly European consumers.
Two recent surveys conducted on behalf of Barclay's drew a clear distinction between those who produce food in the U.K. and those who only consume it.
While 61% of farmers surveyed said they would grow GE crops if legally permitted to do so, only 21% of consumers interviewed said they were willing to support GE food crops. Sixty-seven percent of adults in the U.K. said they would prefer to buy conventional food, and 24% said they would prefer strictly organic food options.
"This research shows just how important the issue of GM still is," concluded Martin Redfearn, head of agriculture at Barclay's. "We are clearly seeing a distinction between those farmers in the U.K. willing to use GM and the desires of consumers. Opinions among farmers vary widely, but it is evident that there is more of a positive attitude toward (biotechnology) among farmers than we may have at first thought."
European governments, by and large, oppose the adoption of GE crop technologies as a matter of policy. Monsanto announced July 17 that it would withdraw all applications to grow new GE crops in Europe because of deep opposition to the technology. Instead, the company said it would focus on increasing sales of its non-GE seed and farm input business in the region.
While the British government has recently expressed some openness to examining GE crops as a way to more efficiently feed a growing global population, the Barclay's survey suggests that the public is not yet on board with the concept. While only 30% of respondents ages 18-24 said they were opposed to adoption of GE technology in the U.K., nearly half of those ages 40-59 were opposed, and 55% of consumers age 60 and older held a negative view of GM crops.
One of the key concerns cited by GE critics centers on the long-term health effects of consuming foods produced via genetic enhancement.
The European Food Safety Authority published a risk assessment recommendation in 2011 calling for "post-market monitoring" to accompany pre-market toxicological tests.
The problem with that approach, however, is that European researchers have thus far failed to identify useful biomarkers that would allow them to accurately monitor potential health effects.
Michelle Epstein, an allergy and immunology clinician from the Medical University of Vienna, Austria, coordinated a recently completed, European Union-funded project to identify such biomarkers and said the effort came up short.
"We didn't see any health effects," she told youris.com, an online European research forum.
"Even if you do a lot of testing before placing a product on the market, it is not the public at large you are testing," she explained, noting that some people may have immune diseases or consume certain products at very high levels, further confounding the search.
Other European experts were skeptical of the post-market monitoring concept at all.
"In my view, in contrast to the mandatory post-market environmental monitoring, monitoring GM food is questionable," said Joachim Schiemann, biosafety expert at the Julius Kuhn-Institut of the Federal Research Centre for Cultivated Plants in Germany.
Schiemann said the pre-market risk assessment of GE food is sufficient in most cases, arguing that uncertainties should be defined prior to introducing a product to the market.
"The regulatory authorities have to decide how much uncertainty is acceptable," he said.
In any case, while European farmers' preferences may be tilting toward those of their American counterparts, widespread adoption of biotech crops in the region doesn't appear to be coming any time soon.