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Biotech Bears Fruit for Farmers, Not Consumers

Agriculture: Deterred by public resistance to genetically engineered foods, firms are concentrating on staple crops that make money.

April 08, 2001|MELINDA FULMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Biotechnology was supposed to feed the world. It was supposed to usher in an era of better-tasting fruits and vegetables engineered to be more nutritious--loaded with protein or pumped up with extra vitamins. The industry appears to be making good on that first promise, but seven years after the Flavr Savr tomato launched the agricultural biotechnology revolution in this country there's little in the produce aisle to show for it. No protein-packed potatoes or palate-pleasing tomatoes.

Instead, the major biotechnology companies have rolled out a series of pest-repelling and herbicide-resistant crops that cater to Midwestern farmers rather than consumers.

In a remarkable miscalculation, the industry counted on consumers to recognize biotechnology's rich potential and champion it. Instead it has found consumers to be the single biggest obstacle to advancement.

Indeed, "natural" foods have gained unexpected consumer support in recent years as mistrust of bioengineered foods has grown.

Industry leaders insist that consumers haven't embraced biotechnology because they don't understand it. But many scientists scoff at that notion.

"Computers have been accepted in our lives, not because we understand how they work, but because they are useful," said Robert Goodman, a biologist at the University of Wisconsin and a former executive vice president at Calgene Inc. The biotechnology industry needs to tell consumers "what's in it for them," he said.

Modern biotechnology is based on inserting a gene from one type of plant or animal into another, which is different from century-old methods of cross-breeding.

Calgene invented the Flavr Savr tomato, using gene-splicing technology to create a slow-ripening tomato that promised to remain firm, flavorful and juicy weeks after it was shipped.

When consumers bit into them, however, they decided the tomatoes more closely resembled the standard cardboard-tasting fruit from the supermarket. For their part, farmers were unimpressed by the tomatoes' quality and deterred by the expense.

If the research pipeline of biotechnology companies is any indication, there's not much for consumers to look forward to--just more commodity crops such as corn, soybeans and wheat engineered with genetic traits to help farmers make money.

"I think the pipeline is just down to dribs and drabs, and what's in there doesn't look too compelling," said Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington.

Biotechnology executives say it's too complex and costly to create innovative fruits and vegetables that farmers might not plant in large numbers and consumers might not be willing to pay more for, or even accept.

However, by ignoring consumers completely, experts say, companies such as Monsanto Co. and Syngenta have helped fuel the growing uneasiness with genetically modified food.

Groups in several states are pushing for bans on the planting of genetically modified crops. Public support also appears to be growing for labeling food that contains genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

A new study by the Pew Charitable Trusts shows that 75% of U.S. respondents said it was somewhat or very important to them to know whether their food has been genetically altered. And nearly 60% of respondents said they didn't want genetically engineered crops introduced into the food supply. Many of these people, however, weren't aware that GMOs already are in more than half the products on supermarket shelves.

Holding Back on New Products

Until consumer acceptance of biotechnology grows, many companies are cutting their investment in research and holding back on product introductions.

Monsanto says its new-product pipeline this decade mainly will introduce plants designed to resist its popular Roundup weed killer, as well as more insect-, disease- and drought-resistant plants.

Only in 2007 and 2008 is Monsanto likely to begin introducing soybeans with more protein, fewer calories and no saturated fat and corn with more protein--products that could be marketed to obese people or those with high cholesterol. And researchers say these products are the result of research done more than 15 years ago.

Monsanto officials say they remain committed to developing products that appeal to consumers and deny they have narrowed the scope of their research to focus on only a couple of traits. "We spend a very significant portion of our [research] budget on breeding crops with improved nutrition," said Robert Fraley, Monsanto's chief technical officer. "The absolute truth is it's just more complicated and takes more time."

Analysts, though, say U.S. biotechnology companies are just coasting, waiting out the protests against genetically altered food after last year's StarLink debacle, in which a potentially allergenic animal feed corn, developed by Aventis CropScience, made its way into the food supply, prompting the recall of hundreds of products.

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