Biotech Popularity Growing

Food and fuel prices are soaring and growers are scrambling to meet demand. A Reuters news article points out that for makers of biotech crops, that adds up to a bright future.

Debate over the risk and benefits of biotech crops, which use genes from other plants and other organisms to effect special traits, still rages in many nations, according to Reuters.

But from the U.S. Midwest, where growers this spring will seed new fields full of transgenic soybeans and corn, to the other side of the world where Chinese growers are growing genetically altered cotton and other crops, biotech agriculture appears to be taking root, says Reuters.

“It’s my judgment that the ag biotech industry has a huge head of steam,” says Charles Benbrook, former executive director of the Board on Agriculture of the National Academy of Sciences and a critic of biotech crops. “They are prevailing in wearing down the opposition.”

The good times are rolling for U.S.-based Monsanto Co, a world leader in manipulating plant DNA to make crops resistant to weedkillers and insect pests. The company’s surging sales pushed its stock up 150 percent over the last year as growers stocked up on the company’s seeds and chemicals, according to Reuters.

Corporate giants such as Syngenta, DuPont Co, Bayer CropScience, BASF, and Dow Chemical Co are also expanding their reach around the world, promoting technology they say can better help feed people and livestock, create alternative fuels, and put more money in growers’ hands.

Naysayers dispute that the tech giants are doing anything more than deepening a base of chemical-friendly crops that help boost sales of herbicides. The majority of the biotech crops commercialized today are engineered to tolerate dousings of herbicide to help growers kill weeds easier.

But biotech backers say the proof is in the bottom line, Reuters says. Acreage planted to the many different biotech crops is expanding around the world as prices for food and fuel rise rapidly and demand for corn, soybeans, and other crops increases in Asia, Latin America, and other growing economies.

“It is being recognized that biotechnology is important,” says Paul Schickler, president of DuPont agricultural unit Pioneer Hi-Bred International.

Reuters points out the biotech progress of several countries:

China is a key area of expansion. Both DuPont and BASF have formed alliances there to accelerate transgenic crop research in corn, beans, and rice. China has already embraced biotech cotton: an estimated 7 million Chinese farmers planted seeds last year that are engineered to resist certain insects.

Like many other nations, China has been slow to embrace biotech crops as food. Indeed, the country has been a key world supplier of non-GMO soy and corn. But biotech rice varieties, with strains resistant to pests and diseases, are in line for approval.

India , which likewise has seen rapid adoption of biotech cotton, is also targeted for growth, though it still has not embraced biotech crops for food.

Last month, South Korea did cross that line by making its first purchase of genetically modified corn for food. Premiums for conventional, non-GMO U.S. corn have trebled from $10 to $15 a tonne a year ago and drove South Korea to the switch.

Latin America is also seen as a growing opportunity for biotech crop promoters. Brazil last month gave clearance for two new varieties of GMO corn to be used for food, and scientists are testing GMO sugar cane. Argentina, already a big producer of biotech soybeans, recently approved a new GMO corn.

Still, there are many who believe biotech crops do more to fatten corporate earnings and investor bank accounts than help growers or the environment. They cite increased use of chemicals, creation of “superweeds,” and potential health problems among the concerns.

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