The growth of genetically modified crops continues unabated in the United States, where farmers and consumers have few qualms about their benefits.
This is in marked contrast with Europe, where political opposition largely based on anti-scientific sentiments remains intransigent, impeding research and development for seed companies.
Nearly all the soybeans planted in the US are now from GM seeds, at 94% of the total area, up from 93% in 2010. The vast majority of cotton and corn crops are also GM, data from USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) shows.
The use of GM cotton is now 90%, slightly from 93% in 2010, but up from 88% in 2009. GM corn planting however climbed to 88% in 2011, up from 86% last year, according to the report, Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops in the US.
Ab Basu, acting executive vice president for food and agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organisation said “This year’s data on adoption of genetically engineered crops suggest that nine out of ten US farmers choose to plant biotech varieties of soybeans, cotton and corn.”
The adoption of herbicide tolerant corn, which had been slower in previous years, has accelerated, reaching 72% of the total US corn area in 2011. Based on USDA survey data, herbicide tolerant soybean plantings surged from 17% of US soybean acreage in 1997 to 68% in 2001 and 94% in 2011.
Insect-resistant crops containing the gene from the soil bacterium Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) have been available for corn and cotton since 1996. These bacteria produce a protein that is toxic to specific insects, protecting the plant over its entire lifespan.
Plantings of Bt corn grew from about 8% of the US corn area in 1997 to 26% in 1999, then fell to 19% in 2000 and 2001, before climbing to 29% in 2003 and 65% in 2011. The increases in area share over recent years may be largely due to the commercial introduction in 2003/04 of a new Bt corn variety that is resistant to the corn rootworm, a pest that may be more destructive to corn yield than the European corn borer, which was previously the only pest targeted by Bt corn.
In contrast, plantings of Bt cotton have expanded more rapidly, from 15% of US cotton acreage in 1997 to 37% in 2001 and 75% in 2011. The adoption of Bt cotton depends on the anticipated infestation of Bt target pests, such as the pink bollworm and tobacco budworm.
Adoption of stacked varieties has also accelerated in recent years, where more than one gene from another organism has been transferred, either for herbicide tolerance or insect resistance (Bt).
Stacked cotton reached 58% of cotton plantings in 2011. Stacked corn comprised 49% of the total area in 2011. Insects have not however posed major problems for soybeans, so accordingly Bt varieties have not yet been developed.
The increased US figures coincided with press reports from Bloomberg and others that BASF, the world’s biggest chemical firm, may withdraw from further GM crop research in Germany in response to growing political opposition from the Green Party, who have been emboldened by the Merkel government’s plans to shut down all nuclear power stations over the next decade following recent events in Japan.
According to informed sources, BASF, which makes the Amflora starch potato, is considering the future of its research facility in Limburgerhof in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, established in 1914. A move to the US is possible for the plant biotechnology operations, which employ 700 people, said one local source.
“GMOs may be just like atomic energy,” alleged Ulrike Hoefken, the Green’s regional environment minister. “The risks are masked and big benefits are claimed. But it’s the general public who is left with the costs for any damage.”
Amflora was approved by the European Commission last year as a potential industrial thickening agent for paper use, despite 13 years of concerted opposition, and is now being developed in Germany and Sweden, where Greenpeace activists have attempted to disrupt seed distribution.
Some authorities have in turn recommended Amflora’s rejection in neighbouring Norway, due to its containing a gene that confers resistance to antibiotics, which they claim could adversely affect waste products. The final decision now rests with the Norwegian Environment Ministry.
German seed maker KWS Saat also carries out research and plants test fields in its home country, while commercial planting takes place in the US because of regulatory hurdles in Europe, according to spokeswoman Sabine Michalek. Bayer, based in Leverkusen, Germany, has located its plant biotechnology research in Belgium.
Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company, has pared plant development in Germany down to a sole project with two test fields as the country’s “basic framework doesn’t lend itself to further products,” company spokesman Andreas Thierfelder said.
“We’re keeping the minimum required to retain our accreditation,” Thierfelder told Bloomberg. “It’s just enough to keep our foot in the door.” Monsanto does most of its research in Missouri, where the company is based.
The European Parliament has recently voted on draft legislation to give member states more authority and sovereignty in banning GM crop production. The question for years has been if and when will the rules in Europe would become less draconian, while optimists have suggested it will slowly occur with changes in European Union mandates. Now, reports are that sentiment is growing for allowing individual countries to do as they please instead of having EU oversight.
“If member states can opt out of a product approval system simply because of political preference, without any scientific reasoning, the result will be more uncertainty and less choice for farmers,” said Carel du Marchie Sarvaas, a director from the EU biotech industry association EuropaBio.
At the same time, the Geneva-based Codex Alimentarius Commission has voted in favour of GM labelling being permitted, as this will protect countries from the threat of World Trade Organisation lawsuits. In a surprise volte face, the Obama administration supported the move as it was for voluntary rather than worldwide mandatory GM labelling. But this was seen as another victory for European consumers.
Overall, the tide against GM research and development is regarded as increasingly hostile in Europe, and the regulatory risks and costs involved increasingly prohibitive. As a result, developing countries could overtake industrialised nations in planting GM crops by 2015, according to Clive James, founder of the Philippines-based International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, which tracks GM developments across the world.
For example, GM maize in Hungary is now being destroyed in order to comply with the country’s new constitution, its farm minister has revealed. Hungary is due to become a GM-free country following its adoption of a new constitution in April, which speaks of promoting a healthy lifestyle through “more sport and less consumption of GMO foods”.
So Europe looks likely to follow a trend of establishing both nuclear and GM-free zones, as environmentalists gain the upper hand. But “the price countries like Germany will have to pay if they decide against biotech will be very high. The money and the scientists would go elsewhere. That’s a long-term loss,” James has concluded.