Bioengineered crop area flat in U.S.

by Ron Sterk
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Area planted in the United States in 2012 to the major bioengineered crops — corn, soybeans, cotton and sugar beets — held about steady with 2011 levels, while interest is growing for wheat. Meanwhile, a November ballot initiative in California that would require labeling of foods containing bioengineered ingredients has caught the food industry’s attention.

In one sense, little has changed in the past year as widespread production of key bioengineered crops in the United States and the rest of the world continues, but that may change. A year ago there was focus on attempts to block the use of bioengineered sugar beet seeds in the United States. That case hasn’t yet been settled, possibly pushed to the back burner by opponents as the tide has seemingly swayed in favor of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the sugar beet industry. This year the opposition to bioengineered crops appears to have shifted its focus to consumers, pushing for labeling of foods with bioengineered ingredients.

In California, voters will decide in November whether to require labeling of some foods made from bioengineered plant and animal products. California’s secretary of state certified “The Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act” in June after a campaign by labeling proponents gathered nearly one million signatures. Bioengineered labeling initiatives were earlier killed by the California legislature, as well as by legislators in Washington, Connecticut and Vermont, but it’s the first time such a proposal has been put before voters. If voters approve of the measure, labeling or reformulation of thousands of food products would be required and advertising of processed foods that include bioengineered crops could not be labeled as “natural.” Several exemptions would be allowed, including food sold in restaurants for immediate consumption and those certified as organic.

Grist, a pro-green, pro-organic and anti-corporate food web site, claims about 90% of Americans want labeling that reflects whether food products contain bioengineered ingredients and that such labeling requirements already exist in most of Europe, China, Brazil and soon India. The web site suggests such labeling may boost sales of organic foods in California because “a labeling requirement would make the contrast between conventional and organic products all the more noticeable.”
Some labeling opponents suggest the covert purpose of the initiative may be to increase organic food sales.
Grist makes the following ob-servation in a recent posting: “If there is a real worry in the hearts of ‘Big Food’ executives, it’s because they know that what happens in California rarely stays in California. This initiative may cause a wave of G.M.O. labeling laws and referenda to ripple across the country. But it may be even simpler. The packaging that food companies use in California — by far the most populous state in the country and thus the largest market — will likely be the packaging they’ll use elsewhere.”

A coalition of agriculture, food, consumer and business groups have opposed the measure because it would require relabeling and repackaging of most grocery food items and increase costs that ultimately would be borne by consumers and farmers.

“G.M. labeling is a solution in search of a non-existent problem,” said Susan Finston, former executive director of the American BioIndustry Alliance. “The labeling question was vigorously debated in the 1990s and it was determined that labeling of new G.M.O. products would be required only if the foods themselves posed a safety concern, not because they differed from more conventional products produced in the usual manner.

“It would be far better policy for companies to label the minority of products that appeal to anti-G.M.O. consumers than to try to implement mandatory G.M. labeling. For the conscientious consumer concerned with such matters, that is what they already do. Whole Foods, for example, has all but made an industry out of the practice.”

Currently federal law allows voluntary labeling of products that may indicate they are “non-G.M.O.,” although such labeling cannot be misleading.

Millions of dollars, some estimate $100 million or more, are expected to be spent in attempts to sway voters ahead of the November vote in California.

Meanwhile, several agricultural groups in a recent letter to the U.S. House Appropriations Committee joined to support Section 733 in the 2013 appropriations bill that would give growers assurance bioengineered crops already approved by the U.S.D.A. may be planted and harvested under temporary stewardship conditions in the event of litigation against the U.S.D.A.’s decision.

“Opponents of agricultural bio-technology have repeatedly filed suits against the U.S.D.A. on procedural grounds in order to disrupt the regulatory process and undermine the science-based regulation of such products,” the letter said. Such lawsuits have created resource restraints for the U.S.D.A. and have resulted in significant delays in approval of new products, the signees said. Among the nine groups signing the letter were the National Association of Wheat Growers, the National Corn Growers Association, the American Soybean Association and the American Sugarbeet Growers Association.

Sugar beet suits still unsettled
Such legal action referred to in the letter to the House Appropriations Committee was in part taken against the U.S.D.A. in an attempt to block the planting of bioengineered sugar beets in 2009. While more than one lawsuit and appeal were involved, the initial filing occurred in what was considered the plaintiff-friendly U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The case has since been moved to Washington, which is seen as more friendly to the defendant — the U.S.D.A.

The U.S.D.A.’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) on June 1 published two analysis, in accordance with the California court’s decision in 2009, in response to a petition for non-regulated status submitted by developers of genetically engineered glyphosate resistant sugar beet seed, commonly referred to as Roundup Ready seed.

“APHIS’ final plant pest risk assessment finds RR (Roundup Ready) sugar beets are not likely to pose a plant pest risk,” the agency said in its assessment under the Plant Protection Act.

APHIS other assessment, the final Environmental Impact Statement, was “helpful in informing the agency regarding any potential environmental impacts before making its final regulatory determination,” but APHIS said it lacked “authority to address such environmental impacts.”

In the final Environmental Impact Statement, APHIS determined that “nonregulated status was appropriate for Roundup Ready sugar beets,” which was consistent with its authority regarding determination of the plant pest risk.

The agency noted that neither of the two analysis were its final regulatory determination as both documents would be available for public review for at least 30 days, after which APHIS would publish its final decision in the Federal Register.

In comments related to APHIS’ June 1 announcement, the Sugar Industry Biotech Council on June 5 said, “Growers will continue to produce Roundup Ready sugar beets under the current requirements of partial deregulation until the Record of Decision is published in the Federal Register.”

The trade estimates about 95% of U.S. planted sugar beet area is of glyphosate resistant seed. Such seed is resistant to the herbicide Roundup, manufactured by Monsanto Corp., allowing growers easier and more economical control of weeds and resulting in increased yields. Since first planted in 2008, the Roundup Ready seed became the fastest adopted bioengineered seed ever in the United States. The average yield per acre of sugar beets in the six years before Roundup Ready seed was significantly planted was about 22 tons per acre compared with about 26 tons since the seed became popular.

U.S. bioengineered area holds steady
The U.S.D.A. first published data for select bioengineered crops in 2000, when about 69 million acres, or 41%, of total corn, soybean and upland cotton area of 169 million acres was planted to bioengineered seed. In its June 29 Acreage report, the U.S.D.A. said about 167 million acres, or 90%, of the near 185 million total acres of those three crops were comprised of bioengineered seed. That’s one percentage point less than in 2011, when about 164,353,120 acres of the three crops were of the bioengineered variety, but the actual total area of bioengineered crops was up 2.9 million acres, or about 2%, because increased total planted area for corn and soybeans more than offset smaller area for cotton this year.

The U.S.D.A. estimated 88% of the U.S. corn planted area was of bioengineered seed, the same percentage as in 2011 and up from 86% in 2010. Corn area planted to such seeds this year was estimated at about 84,836,400 acres, up 3.9 million acres, or 5%, from 80,890,480 acres in 2011, mirroring the change in total planted area, estimated at 96,405,000 acres in 2012, also up 5%.

While the total percentage of corn planted to bioengineered seed held constant in 2012, the percentage of acres varied by type of trait. The U.S.D.A. estimated 15% of plantings were of insect resistant varieties, down from 16% in 2011. Herbicide resistant varieties comprised 21% of plantings, down from 23%. But stacked gene varieties (containing both insect and herbicide resistant genes) totaled 52%, up from 49% a year earlier. Use of bioengineered seed, especially insect resistant varieties, fluctuates from year to year based on the expected level of infestation, according to the U.S.D.A.’s Economic Research Service.

On a percentage basis, 5 of the top 11 corn growing states planted 90% or more to bioengineered seeds, including No. 1 Iowa (91%), No. 3 Nebraska (91%), No. 6 South Dakota (94%), No. 7 Kansas (90%) and No. 11 North Dakota (96%).

Total 2012 soybean planted area estimated at 76,080,000 acres included about 70,754,400 acres, or 93%, planted to bioengineered seed, the U.S.D.A. said. The percentage planted to bioengineered soybeans was down from 94% in 2011 but total area was up 276,960 acres because total soybean planted area was higher this year. Nearly all of the bioengineered soybean plantings are for herbicide resistance.

Upland cotton area planted to bioengineered seed in 2012 was about 11,656,000 acres, or 94%, of the total 12,400,000 acres planted, compared with 90% of the total last year, the U.S.D.A. said.

The U.S.D.A.’s National Agricultural Statistics Service randomly selects farmers from all the states included in the corn, soybean and upland cotton estimating program each June when surveying for its Acreage report, asking if they planted bioengineered seed. The U.S.D.A. does not survey for plantings of other bioengineered crops, although the percentage of total plantings for some is significant as is the case for sugar beets.

Global bioengineered plantings up 8%
Production of major bioengineered crops in the United States includes corn, soybeans, cotton, sugar beets, canola, alfalfa, papaya and squash, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, which does an annual global status update of bioengineered crops. Globally, the top three crops are soybeans (186 million acres), corn (126 million acres) and cotton (61 million acres), with poplar trees, tomatoes, sweet peppers and potatoes also on the list, along with the others listed for the United States.

Noticeably missing from the list is wheat, the most widely grown food grain globally, and rice, the most important food grain for Asia and much of the developing world.

An estimated 395 million acres were planted globally to bioengineered crops in 2011, up from 4.25 million acres when the first bioengineered crops were planted in 1996 and up 30 million acres, or 8%, from 2010, according to the I.S.A.A.A. Twenty-nine countries grew bioengineered crops, unchanged from 2010, the organization said. The most common bioengineered traits include plants with genes resistant to glyphosate, commonly known as Roundup Ready, and plants that contain Bacillus thuringiensis, bacteria that allow plants to produce their own insecticide.

The United States had the most area planted to bioengineered crops with about 170 million acres in 2011, the I.S.A.A.A. said, followed by Brazil (75 million acres), Argentina (59 million), India (26 million) and Canada (26 million).

“Developing countries grew close to 50% of global biotech crops in 2011 and for the first time are expected to exceed industrial countries in 2012,” the I.S.A.A.A. said. “This is contrary to the prediction of critics who, prior to the commercialization of the technology in 1996, prematurely declared that biotech crops ... would never be accepted and adopted by developing countries.” The growth rate in 2011 for bioengineered crops in developing countries was twice as fast and twice as large as in industrialized countries, the I.S.A.A.A. said.

While 29 countries plant bio-engineered crops, another 31 have granted regulatory approvals for import for food and feed use and for release into the environment since 1996, the I.S.A.A.A. said.

The European Union continues to be the center of resistance for acceptance of bioengineered crops and imports, the I.S.A.A.A. said, although it noted six E.U. countries planted a record 282,790 acres of bioengineered corn in 2011, up 26% from 2010. A small amount of potatoes are the only other bioengineered crop grown in the E.U. The I.S.A.A.A. also said 41 leading Swedish biological scientists in October 2011 sent a strongly-worded open letter to European politicians and environmentalists in support of bioengineered crops and the need to revise E.U. policy. The petition also was endorsed by a group of U.K. scientists.

Future: Wheat, drought resistant corn
Three of the major targets of bio-engineered crops in the future involve wheat, rice and drought-tolerant corn. Developments in rice and corn are at hand, but for wheat are a bit farther away.

DroughtGard, a variety of corn bioengineered by Germany’s BASF SE and St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. to be drought tolerant, is expected to be widely introduced in 2013 after being tested by 250 growers this year. While some opponents argue that bioengineered drought-tolerant corn doesn’t outperform non-engineered varieties, supporters counter that the new variety is targeted only at limiting yield losses amid moderate drought conditions.

Pioneer Hi-Bred, a subsidiary of DuPont Co., already markets a non-engineered drought tolerant corn. Such varieties may allow corn production in typically drier parts of the country (though not desert conditions, supporters note) that previously would grow only wheat or other crops that required less water than corn.

“Golden Rice,” a bioengineered variety with enhanced beta carotene levels, is moving toward completion of regulatory requirements in the Philippines and Bangladesh with confined field tests completed in 2010, according to the I.S.A.A.A. Golden Rice is expected to be released in the Philippines in 2013-14, the group said.

But wheat still may be the “big prize” going forward with no bioengineered wheat currently grown commercially.

“Five years ago in North America a decision was made to delay the introduction of biotech herbicide tolerant wheat, but this decision has been revisited,” the I.S.A.A.A. said. “Many countries and companies now are fast-tracking the development of a range of biotech traits in wheat, including drought tolerance, disease resistance and grain quality. The first biotech wheat is expected to be ready for commercialization around 2017.”

Development of bioengineered wheat was thwarted by concerns about the loss of export markets (about 50% of the crop is exported), and by fears that recovery of the huge investment in developing and bringing to market new varieties (as much as $100 million) would be difficult as growers could opt to “plant from the bin” rather than buy certified seed.

In the meantime, wheat has consistently lost acreage to corn and soybeans, in part because bioengineered traits made those crops more profitable to grow than wheat.

But interest in developing new varieties of wheat, whether it be conventional or bioengineered, has been resuscitated the past couple of years.

Germany’s Bayer CropScience earlier this year opened its new European Wheat Breeding Center in Gatersleben, Germany, and said it plans to develop a new wheat breeding station in Goehner, Neb., with other stations planned in Europe, Asia, Australia and Latin America.

With government funding from the U.K. Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, Rothamsted Research recently said it had begun a program to more than double wheat yields in the U.K. in the next 20 years. Yields would be increased through genetic improvement, more efficient photosynthesis and nutrient use, and changes to the wheat plant’s canopy and roots, Rothamsted said. The Rothamsted Research wheat test plot was attacked earlier this year, illustrating the still strong opposition by some groups to bioengineered crops.
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