The genetically modified organisms issue cries out for rational and informed discourse. The level of misunderstanding accompanying the rocky debut of GMO products has been startling, particularly in light of the protracted birth for biotechnology applications in agriculture.
The biggest and least effective proponents are the commercial patent holders and growers using GMO products. They are no match for a new generation of political and social activists spurred on by effective international political organizations.
How could the claimed boon to agriculture worldwide, particularly for developing countries, go so far astray? Lurking behind the debate on GMOs is the phantom fear of the ownership of staple food resources. Corporate control and American domination may, in fact, be deemed the real bogeyman. Despite recent dramatic ownership changes and ongoing restructuring in the industry, the label of American multinational domination still sticks. European and Japanese governments are wary because of the competitive advantage they see tipping in favor of the United States. Presumably, their concern is based in large part on the fact that a majority of the GMO patents are held by American companies.
In the social and political arena, the corporate behemoths are contrasted with organic farming and small, independent producers. There is little doubt that GMO technologies have ushered in a phase of vertical integration and coordination in the agricultural sector. The main reasons are high capitalization requirements at the R&D level; closely linked input-output farming to respond to targeted end-user requirements; farm consolidation in the Western Hemisphere and within the European Union; labeling and diverse national and international regulatory requirements; and an evolution toward global marketing strategies.
Biotechnologies have already resulted in increased concentration in the seed and chemical industries, as demonstrated by a dazzling array of mergers. Whatever the commercial rationale in favor of these mergers, concern remains that their net effect will be to direct technologies to what may be commercially viable at the expense of more socially desirable technologies and products. GMO companies, for example, may forego certain pest-resistant or nitrogen-fixation options because of their potential infringement on the market of their flagship chemical and fertilizer products.
On the other hand, GMO giants may be losing some of their firepower over the short term, as witnessed by the likely decimation of Monsanto’s or Novartis’s self-induced weight reduction. These changes present new commercial opportunities. Similarly, the maturation of recombinant technologies is introducing consumers to product choices they never previously had. GMOs once associated with soybean and corn production have now graduated to offering human medicines for the treatment of diseases, nutraceutical products grown under controlled conditions, and foods targeted to special diets and taste preferences.
There are other positive signs that counter assumptions of a world soon facing a neo-oil cartel for GMOs: profitable growers may assume a more important role in the world marketing system as integrated systems become more dependent on their inputs; value-added products will increase the efficiency and return to growers worldwide; small and medium-size companies continue to dominate biotechnology R&D; consumers are likely to have more market influence with GMOs than previously, when a greater portion of production was in undifferentiated crops; and a biotransformation of agriculture will serve to create nontraditional linkages to other markets that include pharmaceuticals, animal health, chemicals, and a range of industrial markets not normally associated with agriculture.
Previous resistance to accelerated GMO development has produced constructive results. Putting the brakes on indiscriminate commercialization while establishing an infrastructure for the enforcement of biosafety has introduced a greater appreciation of the shared gain in biotechnology. To continue now with political posturing or the creation of artificial barriers to trade in the name of biosafety is a disservice to a historic international collaborative effort for agricultural research and development.
The fact that European countries have stepped up their research in agricultural biotechnology and Japan has not wavered in its commitment to the sector is indicative of the forward momentum in the field. New breakthroughs under international consortia are equally encouraging for use in developing countries. FDA has initiated a mandatory review prior to the marketing of new biotech products. FDA and USDA have also introduced guidelines for labeling biotech vs organic and biotech-free products.
If the recent protests occasioned by biotechnology hearings are any example, it will take some time to moderate debate. IFT should take a lead in public forums because its members are among the most knowledgeable and experienced in the field. IFT leaders and others can clarify the value of the research and the parameters for responsible application.
We cannot turn the clock back to avoid tactical errors which may have been made in the past, but we can build social, commercial, and scientific alliances for responsible GMO research and application. Food security could well depend on it.
by Richard Gilmore is Chief Executive Officer, GIC Corp., 1016 Duke St., Alexandria, VA 22314.