Local experts say the passionate debate in Europe over the safety of genetically altered foods hasn’t affected San Diego’s burgeoning ag-biotech development.
Yet most observers would say it’s still too early to tell whether growing opposition in Europe and other countries to genetically modified food will have an impact on the ag-biotechnology industry.
San Diego is home to several ag-biotechs, including DowAgroSciences LLC’s Mycogen Corp. unit, Rancho Bernardo-based chemical maker Eco Soil Systems Inc., and Del Mar-based Akkadix Corp.
San Diego is also home to the Novartis Agricultural Discovery Institution, backed by Swiss giant Novartis AG, which is poised to deliver cutting-edge development in ag-biotech.
While ag-biotechs themselves may not have been affected yet, European consumers’ resistance to buying genetically modified foods is already affecting the thinking of American politicians, farmers, researchers and firms that manufacture prepared foods.
“If Europeans decide not to import genetically modified American farm products, if farmers decide it’s too iffy to plant genetically engineered crops , then we will see a dramatic decline in ag-biotech research,” said Maarten Chrispeels, director of the center for molecular agriculture at UCSD.
Until now, American consumers have shown little concern for genetically altered products , derived from genetically modified plants containing two or three additional genes spliced into the plant’s DNA and a corresponding number of additional proteins, explained Chrispeels.
About one-third of America’s corn is genetically spliced. Gene-altered soy and corn, which are converted into oils, flours and protein supplements, are used in numerous products, from cookies and salad dressings to snack foods, according to published reports.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t require the labeling of genetically modified products because there is no scientific evidence they cause any harm.
Supporters such as Chrispeels and Keith Walker, who said he directed the first gene-spliced corn project at Mycogen, claim genetic alteration helps cut down the use of harmful pesticides, can make foods like rice richer in vitamins, and increase plants’ resistance to cold and salt.
Skeptics, however, argue that once the genetic coding of a plant is altered, it changes the state of its microorganisms, creating a potentially hazardous organism.
Rebecca Goldburg of the Environmental Defense Fund in New York City testified
that federal regulators need to study potential side-effects, such as food allergies, the evolution of resistant pests and the harm to non-target species, such as butterflies, according to the Gannett News Service.
The governments of both the European Union and Japan are preparing to demand labeling of genetically altered foods, said Tassos Haniotis, agricultural counselor of the Delegation of the European Commission in Washington, D.C.
“European consumers are concerned. The benefits may go to the producer, but the consumers don’t see what they get out of it (genetically modified products),” Haniotis said.
Poor Communicating Job
Walker said the industry has done a poor job in communicating the positive aspects genetically modified foods, and responding to consumers’ concerns about them.
European resistance has already taken its toll on the market performance of modified food producers, said Ned Olivier, general partner at the venture capital firm Oxford Bioscience Partners in Orange County.
“I believe that some of the initial suppliers of genetically modified agricultural products behaved in a rather high-handed way and this led to a backlash, which has spread,” Olivier said.
Chrispeels and Walker argue the debate isn’t about science, but politics.
Larry Smith, a financial analyst at Sutro & Co. in New York City, said European environmental groups are stirring up heated emotions.
“In Europe, the strong environmental movement was given a boost by mad cow disease,” Smith said, referring to the recent controversry over the safety of English-raised beef.
Will Be Rewarded
Olivier predicts ag-biotechs will be rewarded in one to three years, once financial and political pressures begin to subside.
For now, however, farmers in the United States appear no longer willing to plant genetically modified foods in good faith.
“Research showed we were going to see a 20 percent to 25 percent increase in genetically modified crops planted next year,” said Gary Goldberg, chief executive officer of the American Corn Growers Association. “Now we’re forecasting a 20 to 25 percent decrease in genetically modified acres because of the consumer resistance overseas.”
Last year, when the European Union stopped the import of American-grown corn, the United States lost $200 million, said Haniotis.
The U.S. also exports about 40 percent of its soybean production every year to Europe, which is worth some $2.5 billion.
“We have not taken a pro or con on GMO’s (genetically modified organisms),” Goldberg said, adding that American farmers just want to make a living.