Genetic numbers staggering

A bump in the road for biotech? Forgive Arnold Foudin if he's at first reluctant to put precise numbers on his projections for the growth of agricultural biotechnology. As USDA-APHIS's official biotech watcher, for the past decade his projections always fell short of the industry's actual advances.

The numbers alone are staggering. The first commercially used genetically modified plant came on the market in 1993. In the year 2,000, 72 million acres of biotech crops were planted in the U.S., and 2,610 federal permits were issued for testing in corn alone. In 1998, the ag biotech industry racked up $1.6 billion in sales. Foudin predicts that will reach $8 billion in 2005 and $25 billion in 2010.

Can opposition to genetically modified organisms slam the brakes on the biotech industry? Not likely, Foudin says.

"For the short-term, I'm extremely pessimistic about what's going to happen. But long-term, I can be very optimistic about biotech developments," Foudin said at the recent Southeast Vegetable and Fruit/AgTech 2000 Expo in Greensboro, N.C.

Several factors involved Several factors hurt the short-term outlook, he says. Foremost at the moment, perhaps, is the controversy involving Aventis' StarLink corn, which was discovered in food products even though it is not approved for human use in the U.S., leaving farmers with millions of bushels of stored corn they can't sell.

"As a government regulator, I feel like the StarLink situation is government regulation at its worst. The mistakes made all through the chain with StarLink are just incredible. We will outlive it and move on. Short-term, it will contribute to the public's mistrust," Foudin says.

Industry consolidation also is a problem, he says. "The top three companies have the equivalent of 50 percent of biotech research and development. That can have dramatic negative effects. The disappearance of seed companies hurts. There's not a single large wholly-owned seed company in the world. Short-term that's quite negative, but in the long-term it may be quite a blessing," Foudin says.

The toughest barrier to biotech's rapid growth could be what Foudin calls natural spiritualism. "This is the idea that if it comes from nature, it's good. There's no testing required, and no regulation necessary. The public assumes it's good. But if it's manmade, they assume testing is necessary ad infinitum. The feeling is that, with biotech, if it isn't absolutely natural, it's inherently unsafe," he says.

USDA itself doesn't help matters there. "Biotech is one of the unholy three, along with irradiation and human sewer sludge, banned from being classified as organic," Foudin says.

Familiar list Foudin ticks off a now-familiar list of ways agricultural biotechnology will benefit consumers in years to come: through pharmaceuticals produced by the plants, vaccines carried by vegetables and fruit, cancer-fighting genes in tomatoes and soybeans.

"In the next decade, agriculture will move from producing for calories to producing for diet and health. You are what you eat; that's proven. Agriculture will be moving toward supplying a healthy, nutritious life-enhancing diet," Foudin says.

"Seed is the Internet of biotech, the package this information will be placed in."

We'll likely see no more significant research for standard old-style commodity crops, Foudin says. "I don't think they'll ever come back. The biotech products are already out there. When are we going to see the growth? When the right one hits the market. Probably low commodity prices will drive the companies. This is the decade to watch them come out."

With the right products on the market, even the Europeans will demand GMOs, Foudin says. "As value-added neutriceuticals reach the market, European consumers will clamor for them and Europeans will find ways of letting them in their market," he says.

"In the short-term, they're using biotech as a trading tool against us. For a number of reasons, the European governments have created what amounts to a Frankenstein monster with GMOs. Initially they were used as a trading tool against us and then they were hijacked by more radical elements."

Like other technological leaps, biotech depends upon consumer acceptance. "Appropriate products will have to hit the market before the public will change its perception. Ag biotech needs the kind of product where the consumer makes a connection between value-added traits and the American producer," Foudin says.

"Identity-preserved and quality assurance systems are going to have to be developed. High-priced value added corn is not going to be harvested by the farmer and then dumped at the local elevator. They're going to sell certified identity-preserved commodities at an enhanced value."

All in all, it's been a remarkable 17 years since the first transgenic plant was tested. "This is the greatest technological revolution mankind has experienced in the last 10,000 years, since the discovery of agriculture. Knowledge is doubling every decade in biology and that will continue to escalate," Foudin says.

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