While biotechnology traits have been readily adopted by American farmers over the past decade, the industry's future is being hampered by the perceived consumer resistance to genetically-engineered food products and the government's inability to set standards for these products, according to a biotechnology report released Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"Opportunities and Challenges in Agricultural Biotechnology: The Decade Ahead" was prepared by the Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture (AC21), whose 20 members include technology providers, farmers, food processors, and representatives from consumer and environmental organizations, the shipping industry and academics.
Although the participants share the vision that a "safe and abundant food supply and a diversified agricultural marketplace that can meet the needs and preferences of customers and consumers will require national and international regulatory systems," there are differing points of view among the members as to how this can be accomplished.
In 2005, 52 percent of corn, 87 percent of soybeans, and 79 percent of cotton planted in the United States was genetically engineered, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. While transgenic varieties have been beneficial to farmers and the environment, they have not provided marketing advantages to food retailers or improved nutrition or taste to attract consumers, the report noted.
The perception that there are unknown risks associated with genetically engineered food has made food processors and retailers reluctant to bring to market food products developed from transgenic crops, especially where there is a requirement for mandatory labeling of these products.
Until the government can ensure that genetically engineered food products are safe for human consumption and the environment, and will not adversely affect the food supply, it will be difficult to get these products onto supermarket shelves.
The members note that many of the "first-generation" transgenic organisms developed in the U.S. have now been adopted by farmers in other nations, including developing nations. Many of these countries now require mandatory labeling for food products derived from modern biotechnology, and some require product traceability throughout the food and feed chain.
But this is causing segmentation in the marketplace, since those food manufacturers who do not want to label their products as containing transgenics are sourcing non-transgenic crops.
Although there have been substantial benefits from growing transgenic crops (improved soil conservation, lowered pesticide use, and improved crop quality), there are still many farmers who believe that these benefits can be attained through other methods.
Most farmers now growing transgenic crops anticipate growing varieties containing new traits and this will help spur the development of new traits.
Some of these crops will even be engineered for industrial uses, including crops having improved processing attributes for increased starch content, producing useful enzymes that can be extracted for downstream industrial processes, or modified to have higher content of an energy-rich starting material such as oil for improved utilization as biofuel.
Among the AC21 members, there are concerns that food crops genetically engineered to produce medical or industrial products and never intended for food or feed use could inadvertently end up in a food or feed product.
But there is not a consensus of opinion on how to control this. Some members would prefer that the federal government not approve the use of food crops for the production of medical and industrial substances, even if the substances are deemed safe. They believe it would be impossible to develop a regulatory process or containment system that would assure that these products will never enter the food supply.
Other members believe that at small scale, complete segregation from food products can be ensured by a combination of physical and biological containment strategies. As scale or potential risk increases, food safety assessment may be required in addition to stringent containment procedures.
Still other members hold the view that no food crop should be used without thorough regulatory review of food safety and the establishment of stringent safeguards to prevent intermingling with the food supply.
For the last two groups, the Federal government’s ability to successfully address the issues of containment and public confidence in that containment system remains critical for the development of these products.
For foods and feeds derived from transgenic crops, the FDA uses a voluntary consultative process to review safety data. While the FDA does not approve pre-market approval of these products, it does require pre-market approval of food additives regardless of method of production.
But the AC21 members are not in agreement as to whether the current FDA regulatory system for transgenic crops is adequate to ensure safety and public acceptance. Some members believe that the Federal government needs to establish a mandatory pre-market approval process for transgenic crops consumed by humans and animals. This would also make consumers more inclined to accept transgenic-derived foods.
According to the report, it is also important for the U.S. to have adequate regulatory systems in place to determine the safety of imported transgenic crops and their products. And the report continues, an effective international marketplace also requires agreement to and enforcement of fair, clearly defined trading rules.
The members of the committee recognize that achieving this vision will be a worthwhile endeavor for the modern biotechnology industry, but it will not be an easy one.