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ENVIRONMENT: GE Crops Slow to Gain Global Acceptance

Stephen Leahy

BROOKLIN, Canada, Jan 9 2007 (IPS) - Widespread use of genetically engineered (GE) crops remains limited worldwide, even as growing weed and pest issues are forcing farmers to use ever greater amounts of pesticides.

More than 70 percent of large-scale GE planting is still limited to the U.S. and Argentina, according to a new report released Tuesday by Friends of the Earth International (FOEI).

“No GM (GE) crop on the market today offers benefits to the consumer in terms of quality or price, and to date these crops have done nothing to alleviate hunger or poverty in Africa or elsewhere,” said Nnimmo Bassey of Friends of the Earth Africa in Nigeria.

“The great majority of GM (GE) crops cultivated today are used as high-priced animal feed to supply rich nations with meat,” Bassey said in a statement.

The new report, “Who Benefits From GM Crops?”, is an analysis of the global performance of GE crops from 1996-2006. It also notes that the “second generation” of GE farm crops with attractive traits long promised by the industry has failed to appear.

Supporters of biotechnology have long claimed that the technology is the solution to world hunger, but the only GE crops widely planted are herbicide-tolerant soy, maize, cotton and canola (oil seed rape) and Bt maize and cotton. Herbicide tolerance allows these crops to be sprayed with glyphosate (RoundUp), a potent weed killer, without affecting the crop. Bt maize and cotton contain an insecticide that kills insect pests.

Studies have shown that GE crops do not increase yields or improve food quality – the only benefit is reduced labour for farmers because it easier to control weeds by constantly spraying glyphosate over their crops, said Adrian Bebb of Friends of the Earth Europe.

“That’s only an advantage for big, industrial-scale farmers and is inappropriate for the majority of farmers,” Bebb told IPS.

Studies by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and University of Arkansas show that large farms continue to get larger because the combination of the high GE seed costs and the low cost of glyphosate works better the bigger farms are.

However, repeated use of glyphosate is creating weeds that are resistant to the chemical that is widely considered the world’s best herbicide.

Late last year, U.S. scientists discovered that giant ragweeds in Indiana and Ohio have become immune to glyphosate. This is the seventh weed species to do so in the U.S. In the southern U.S. where GE cotton is widely grown, 39 percent of farmers who grow GE crops reported problems with glyphosate-resistant weeds. Only a few years ago there was no such thing.

“The only surprise here is the speed with which weeds evolved resistance,” says Bebb.

Many scientists had predicted that continual use of glyphosate on GE crops would eventually result in resistant weeds. The same thing has happened in Canada, Brazil and Argentina. In fact, glyphosate-resistant wild poinsettia, also resistant to other herbicides, has become nearly uncontrollable on 16 million hectares in Brazil, Ribas Vidal, professor of weed science at the University of Rio Grande du Sol in central Brazil, has been reported as saying.

Despite this, acreage planted with GE soy and maize continues to grow in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, says Karen Nansen of Friends of the Earth Uruguay.

“Yields are not better but there is a savings in labour costs,” Nansen said in an interview. “That’s a big problem here because it increases rural unemployment.”

As in the north, the GE technology works only with large farm operations. Most of the GE soy and maize grown is exported to North America and Europe as animal feed, she says.

These countries use GE exports to help pay off their massive debts to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and for that reason create policies and conditions to encourage the GE expansion, said Bebb.

Worse still is the fact that a government and industry focus on GE crops has drained enormous amounts of money from research and seed breeding of conventional crops, critics say. Normal breeding methods have already produced virus- and blight-resistant potatoes but the nearly all the focus is on creating GE potatoes with the same properties and that meet the precise shape and size demanded by large fast food corporations, Bebb says.

Not surprisingly, the biotech industry takes the opposite view.

In fact, Clive James, chairman and founder of the influential International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), an industry-funded promoter, recently claimed that the number of countries growing GE crops will “at least double” from 21 in 2005 to around 40.

Next week the ISAAA will issue its annual global status report detailing the global use of GE crops. Last year, it claimed 90 million hectares of GE crops were planted in 21 countries in 2005.

However, Bebb says that many of those 21 countries, like Germany, France and Romania, planted “minuscule amounts…The ISAAA will declare a country even if it grows a single hectare.”

According to the FOEI report, Spain and Romania planted fewer hectares of GE as have the majority of countries using GE cotton including Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, South Africa and Australia.

James has said that “6.4 million Chinese peasants are growing Bt cotton on tiny farms in China” in previous interviews with IPS last year. Bebb said that ISAAA data in 2004 reported 7 million Chinese cotton farmers. Even with that decline, both numbers appear too high because recent studies by Cornell University in the U.S. has shown that after a number of years of using Bt cotton, many of China’s cotton fields are now plagued by insects unaffected by Bt.

“No one knows where the ISAAA gets their numbers because they never provide any references,” says Bebb.

James maintains that ISAAA data is proprietary and is based on government and industry information.

“If FOEI reports had no references we’d be a laughing stock and yet ISAAA stats are widely quoted by governments and scientists,” said Bebb.

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