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Food under the microscope Tuesday, 6 April, 1999, 15:33 GMT 16:33 UK
Hard won profits
The biotech industry is subject to expensive controls
Would you like to taste Endless Summer tomatoes? Bake your bread with Roundup Ready corn? And grill some wonderful AquaAdvantage salmon?

All these food varieties are brought to you and other consumers courtesy of biotechnology companies.

Food under the microscope
The idea is simple: take a crop, for example peppers, cotton, potatoes or soybeans, and alter its genetic structure; make it immune to herbicides, improve its taste, colour and shelf life and persuade it to grow faster.

Sell the product and you will have happy customers, less world hunger, less pollution through pest control and huge profits.

This is what bitotech companies promise their consumers and shareholders. Delivering that promise has, however, been far from easy.

Strict controls

For starters, genetically-modified (GM) food has many enemies. Environmentalists, many consumers and even some scientists worry that the new technology may be risky to human health and the environment.

GM potatoes will be the next big crop to conquer the US
Strict regulations are in place which should to prevent any problems arising - but these will, by definition, restrict the progress of biotechnology companies towards profitability as well.

Europe's fields, for example, are virtually GM-free. Scientists are allowed to grow only a few GM crops for test purposes - at secret locations, to protect them from being uprooted by militant environmentalists.

Paul Muys of the European Association for Bioindustries says the tough laws have restricted the growth of the continent's biotech industry. In 1997, sales were worth 2.7bn euros ($3.2bn - 1.86bn) and led to huge losses of 2bn euros.

In contrast, biotech firms in the United States sold products worth 15.9bn euros ($17.8bn - 11bn). But even there, life science companies are still in the red, losing nearly 3.8bn euros during 1997.

Research effort

This is not for want of customers; biotechnology is simply a very expensive business. Costs pile up during the massive research effort required to develop GM crops - and biotech healthcare products - and test whether they are fit for consumption.

The new crops have required heavy investment
But once a product has the seal of approval from the US Food and Drug Administration, the market potential is huge. North American farmers are taking to the new crops with huge enthusiasm, says Libby Mikesell from the Washington-based Biotechnology Industry Organization, which represents more than 800 companies and research centres in 26 countries around the world.

The first biotech plants were introduced in the USA in the early 1990s. Farmers have never looked back. Today 45% of all cotton fields, 38% of all soybean fields and 25% of all cornfields in the United States produce GM crops.

It is a brave new world, with brand names to fit:

  • New Leaf potatoes promise to fend off insects
  • Bollgard cotton requires less chemical herbicide and insecticide
  • Endless Summer tomatoes have a shelf life of more than 30 days after harvest
  • FreshWorld Sweet Mini-Peppers are said to taste better
  • Posilac Bovine Somatotropin, a naturally occurring but biotech-produced hormone, induces cows to produce up to 15% more milk; it is now used in 30% of all cows in the United States.

Higher yields

Yields are higher and costs are lower, because the new crops need less pest control.

Biotech companies currently offer five different sorts of GM tomatoes
There are currently around 40 GM products for sale, and at least another 30 are expected to come on the market within six years. These will include the AquaAdvantage salmon, flounder and trout, which will grow to market size in one-and-a-half years instead of three.

Consumers already have much more GM food on their plates than they realise.

GM corn and soybeans are often used to produce cooking oils and other ingredients of processed food.

And Professor Marc van Montagu of Gent University in Belgium predicts that in four to five years hardly any food consumed in the United States will be free from GM products.

Grub's up in Europe

US biotech companies - and farmers - are dominating the GM market. Nearly three-quarters of all fields producing GM foods can be found in the United States. Argentina and Canada share most of the rest of the market, with Australia and Mexico the also-rans.

The same holds true for GM food consumption. It is incredibly difficult to find genetically-modified food in Europe. The UK is the only European country that allows the sale of GM tomato paste, made from fruits grown in the United States.

Corn and soybeans, however, are slowly creeping into the food chain, because US farmers and the US government refuse to segregate natural and modified crops.

Therefore, importers cannot know whether that shipload of US corn contains American Cyanamid's Imi-Corn or DeKalb Genetic's Roundup Ready variety.

Jobs and profit prospects

The current debate in Europe over GM products is a replay of that in the US in the early 1990s. The arguments were the same, but government authorities came down firmly on the side of the manufacturers and farmers.

The US biotech industry now employs more than 140,000 people, who develop both GM food and medical products.

The health and drugs industry is the more important part of the genetics industry, with around 300 biotech drugs and vaccines currently going through clinical trials.

Will the ever-fresh, perfectly ripened GM strawberry (courtesy of DNAP's Transwitch technology) fail to entice European consumers? North Americans have already given in to the lure.

GM products are now big business. More and more biotech firms are close to breaking even and analysts predict that profits are just around the corner.

In a world of falling trade barriers, it is unlikely that Europe will be able to resist the offerings of Monsanto, Eden Bioscience and the other producers of high-tech food.

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