GENET archive


7-Business: Biotech's sparse harvest

------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  Biotech's Sparse Harvest
SOURCE: The New York Times, USA, by Andrew Pollack
DATE:   14 Feb 2006

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Biotech's Sparse Harvest

At the dawn of the era of genetically engineered crops, scientists were
envisioning all sorts of healthier and tastier foods, including cancer-
fighting tomatoes, rot-resistant fruits, potatoes that would produce
healthier French fries and even beans that would not cause flatulence.

But so far, most of the genetically modified crops have provided benefits
mainly to farmers, by making it easier for them to control weeds and insects.

Now, millions of dollars later, the next generation of biotech crops --
the first with direct benefits for consumers -- is finally on the horizon.
But the list does not include many of the products once envisioned.

Developing such crops has proved to be far from easy. Resistance to
genetically modified foods, technical difficulties, legal and business
obstacles and the ability to develop improved foods without genetic
engineering have winnowed the pipeline.

"A lot of companies went into shell shock, I would say, in the past
three, four years," said C. S. Prakash, director of plant biotechnology
research at Tuskegee University. "Because of so much opposition, they've
had to put a lot of projects on the shelf."

Developing nonallergenic products and other healthful crops has also
proved to be difficult technically. "Changing the food composition is
going to be far trickier than just introducing one gene to provide insect
resistance," said Mr. Prakash, who has promoted agricultural
biotechnology on behalf of the industry and the United States government.

In 2002, Eliot Herman and his colleagues got some attention when they
engineered a soybean to make it less likely to cause an allergic
reaction. But the soybean project was put aside because baby food
companies, which he thought would want the soybeans for infant formula,
instead are avoiding biotech crops, said Mr. Herman, a scientist with the
Department of Agriculture.

In addition, he said, food companies feared lawsuits if some consumers
developed allergic reactions to a product labeled as nonallergenic.

The next generation of these crops -- particularly those that provide
healthier or tastier food -- could be important for gaining consumer
acceptance of genetic engineering. The industry won a victory last week
when a panel of the World Trade Organization ruled that the European
Union had violated trade rules by halting approvals of new biotech crops.
But the ruling is not expected to overcome the wariness of European
consumers over biotech foods.

New crops are also important for the industry, which has been peddling
the same two advantages -- herbicide tolerance and insect resistance -- for
10 years. "We haven't seen any fundamentally new traits in a while," said
Michael Fernandez, executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and
Biotechnology, a nonprofit group.

Now, some new types of crops are appearing. Monsanto just won federal
approval for a type of genetically engineered corn promoted as having
greater nutritional value -- albeit only for pigs and poultry. The corn,
possessing a bacterial gene, contains increased levels of lysine, an
amino acid that is often provided to farm animals as a supplement.

Coming next, industry executives say, are soybean oils intended to yield
healthier baked goods and fried foods. To keep soybean oil from turning
rancid, the oil typically undergoes a process called hydrogenation. The
process produces trans fatty acids, which are harmful and must be
disclosed in food labels under new regulations.

Both Monsanto and DuPont, which owns the Pioneer Hi-Bred seed company,
have developed soybeans with altered oil composition that, in some cases,
do not require hydrogenation. Kellogg said in December that it would use
the products, particularly Monsanto's, to remove trans fats from some of
its products.

Monsanto's product, Vistive, and DuPont's, which is called Nutrium, were
developed by conventional breeding. They are genetically engineered only
in the sense that they have the gene that allows them to grow even when
sprayed with the widely used herbicide Roundup.

But Monsanto and DuPont say the next generation of soybean, which would
be able to eliminate trans fats in more foods, would probably require
genetic engineering. Those products are expected in three to six years.

Beyond that, both companies said, would be soybeans high in omega-3 fatty
acids, which are good for the heart and the brain. These are now derived
largely from eating fish, which in turn get them by eating algae. Putting
algae genes into soybeans could allow for soy oil that is rich in the
fatty acids.

"Our hope is it is easier to formulate into food without it smelling or
tasting fishy," said David M. Stark, vice president for consumer traits
at Monsanto.

Other second-generation crops are also on the way. DuPont is trying to
develop better tasting soy for use in products like protein bars.

Some efforts are under way to develop more nutritious crops for the
world's least developed countries, led by what is termed golden rice,
which contains the precursor of vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency is a
leading cause of blindness in certain poor countries.

There has been progress in crops able to withstand drought. While those
would mainly benefit farmers, it would also help consumers in regions
like Africa, where droughts bring famine.

Mr. Stark said Monsanto had not anticipated that use of genetic
engineering would discourage food companies from using the company's
soybeans. "I don't get many requests for 'Is this a G.M.O. or not?' " he
said, using the abbreviation for genetically modified organism. "It's
more 'Does the oil work?' "

Still, opposition by consumers and food companies has clearly forced big
companies like Monsanto and DuPont to choose their projects carefully. It
has also made it difficult for academic scientists and small start-ups,
which typically provide much of the innovation in other fields, to obtain

Avtar K. Handa, a professor at Purdue, said he had stopped work on a
tomato he helped develop a few years ago that was rich in lycopene, a
cancer-fighting substance. Genetically modified crops are not being
brought to market and research funds have diminished, he said.

Still, opposition is not the only problem. Alan McHughen, a professor at
the University of California, Riverside, said that for small companies
and university researchers, the main obstacles were patent rights held by
the big companies and the cost of taking a biotech crop through
regulatory review. That has made it particularly difficult to apply
genetic engineering to crops like fruits and vegetables, which have
smaller sales than the major grain and oil crops.

Technical issues are another obstacle. While a single bacterial gene can
provide herbicide resistance or insect resistance, changing the
nutritional composition of crops sometimes requires several genes to
alter the metabolism within a cell. That raises a greater risk of
unintended effects, some experts say.

Enhanced crops must also meet the demands of farmers for high yields and
of food companies for good taste and handling properties.

DuPont won approval for a soybean high in oleic acid, which could produce
healthier oils, back in 1997. But instead of becoming a showcase of the
consumer health benefits of genetic engineering, the crop is now used
only to make industrial lubricants.

Erik Fyrwald, group vice president of DuPont's agriculture and nutrition
division, said one reason the crop was not sold for use in food was that
demand for healthier oils was not as great then as it is now. But other
experts say there was another problem -- foods made with the oil did not
taste good.

"The high-oleic oils are not very well received by the consumer," said
Pamela White, a professor of food science and human nutrition at Iowa
State University. Further, she predicted that soy oils containing the
omega-3 fatty acids would be unstable, making them hard to use in fried foods.

William Freese, a research analyst at Friends of the Earth, which opposes
genetically engineered crops, said genetic engineering had been oversold.
"The facts show that conventional breeding is more successful at
delivering crops with 'healthy traits' than genetic manipulation, despite
all the hype from Monsanto and other biotech companies," he wrote in an
e-mail message.

Scientists at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in
Mexico have already used conventional breeding to develop corn rich in
lysine, similar to the new Monsanto product, he said.

The biotech companies concede that if improvements can be made
conventionally, results would come quicker because such crops do not face
regulatory scrutiny. Mr. Stark of Monsanto said that if his company could
develop high-oleic soybeans using breeding, the product could reach the
market in three years, rather than six for the genetically engineered version.

But in some cases, scientists and executives say, it is not possible to
get a trait, like the omega-3 fatty acids, without using genes from
another species. "With genetic engineering you can go further," said Mr.
Fyrwald of DuPont.

Mr. Fernandez of the Pew Initiative said polls have shown that consumers
seem to be receptive to genetically modified products that have direct
benefits for them. But whether that would be enough to win wide
acceptance of genetically engineered foods remains to be seen.

One issue is whether consumers would even know what they are eating.
Right now, in the United States, genetically modified and conventional
crops are typically mixed together, and food made from biotech crops is
not labeled.

But it is likely that crops with consumer benefits would be segregated so
farmers could charge more for them. And food companies are probably going
to want to label them. But the labeling is likely to proclaim that the
food has healthier oil or is better for the heart, rather than mention it
was the product of genetic engineering.

In Europe, food containing genetically modified ingredients has to be
labeled to that effect, but it is not clear whether the health aspects
would be linked to genetic engineering on the label.

Chris Somerville, chief executive of Mendel Biotechnology, a small
company developing drought-resistant crops, said acceptance would depend
more on big food companies than consumers. Companies, he said, would not
want to risk their brands by using biotech crops if they thought there
was even a slight chance of consumer rejection.

"Really, they're the gatekeepers," said Mr. Somerville, who is also head
of the plant biology department at the Carnegie Institution. "The
consumers aren't going to have any choice before the brand companies
think it's safe to go out."


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