(June 14) If Midwest biotech corn and soybeans are in the passing lane, fruit and vegetable biotech varieties are still stuck in farmyard mud.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s spring survey indicated 74%, or 54 million acres, of soybeans planted this year are biotech varieties, up from 68% last year. USDA officials said 32% of corn, or 25 million acres, is genetically engineered. That compares with 25% planted to biotech last year.

Agricultural biotechnology uses genetic engineering to modify plants, animals or microorganisms by introducing desired traits, including characteristics from unrelated species.

For fresh produce, the genetically modified rainbow papaya variety in Hawaii — engineered to resist the ringspot virus — has made the biggest inroad among all fresh commodities. Rainbow now accounts for about 40% of Hawaii’s papaya production.

But only a handful of biotech fruits and vegetable varieties — notably virus-resistant squash and Bt sweet corn — are available in the marketplace. In fact, there appears to be little clamor among buyers or even growers to bring new biotech varieties on to the market.

Bionova Holding Corp., Oakland, Calif., announced recently it had begun closing its research and development operations.

Research and development work for Bionova Holding had been largely carried out through its wholly owned subsidiary DNA Plant Technology Corp. The focus of DNAP research has been the production of transgenic plants that provide improved disease resistance for fruit and vegetable crops, but the company said that concerns about public acceptance of transgenic products have made producers reluctant to invest in the develop of transgenic fruits and vegetables.

Leonard Gianessi, senior research associate at the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, Washington, D.C., said scientists are just coming to grips with how to use the technology.

“We’re just taking baby steps right now,” he said.

INTERNATIONAL ACCEPTANCE

More so than any reservations about the science of biotechnology, the grower resistance to biotech crops and the resulting dearth of biotech varieties offered from seed companies is related to the lack of international acceptance of GM varieties, industry observers said.

“Most vegetable marketers are nervous about consumer acceptance, especially for the export markets,” said Doug Gurian-Sherman, scientific director for biotechnology for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Washington, D.C.

For example, even though pesticide applications could be reduced with Bt sweet corn and Roundup Ready lettuce, growers have been slow to embrace biotech varieties.

Their caution relates to consumer acceptance at home and abroad, which could be tipped either direction.

On June 10, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson told a biotech industry gathering in Toronto that the U.S. opposes mandatory labeling of biotech food. Despite the fact that 19 countries require labeling and the European Union has banned the sale of any new biotech products since 1998, Thompson said, “Labels imply that biotechnology products are unsafe.”

The biotech industry is trying to calm grower fears and build an argument for consumer acceptance. A report released June 10 by the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, funded in part by the biotech industry, said that six crops currently in the marketplace — soybeans, field corn, cotton, papaya, squash and canola — produce an additional 4 billion pounds of food and fiber on the same acreage, improve farm income by $1.5 billion and reduce pesticide volume by 46 million pounds.

What’s more, the report said that if growers would switch to biotech varieties now or soon to be available for 21 crops evaluated, they could increase production by 10 billion pounds. Farm income would improve by $1 billion and pesticide volume would be reduced by 117 million pounds, the study said.

A report issued May 23 from the General Accounting Office said consumers who eat biotech foods are at no greater risk than other consumers, the report said.

Foreign governments are considering mandatory labels on genetically modified food. However, the U.S. biotechnology industry has voluntarily submitted their new varieties to the Food and Drug Administration for evaluation, and as of April, the agency had evaluated 50 GM foods, many of which have been put on the market after the requisite 18-36 months of risk assessment trials.

The GAO said the voluntary submission of new varieties to the FDA would likely become mandatory based on a proposed rule published in January 2001. In the future, scientists believe that genetic modifications will increasingly change the composition of foods to enhance their nutritional value.

MARKET IMPACT

Monsanto’s experience with its genetically engineered NewLeaf potato may have soured growers and the company on further biotech progress in fresh produce.

The GM NewLeaf variety — engineered to resist the Colorado potato beetle — took a major hit in April 2000 when potato processor J.R. Simplot Co., Boise, Idaho, said it wouldn’t take any more genetically altered potatoes.

Simplot’s move came in response to requests from fast-food chains like McDonalds that declined to accept the GM potatoes.

Loren Wassell, spokesman for Monsanto Corp., St. Louis, said the company’s NewLeaf biotech potato was not being marketed this year and was last planted in 2001.

“That has been placed in cold storage,” he said.

Monsanto’s NewLeaf potato, launched in 1995, had a 4% share of the U.S. potato market in 2000, according to an Environmental Protection Agency Web site.

Wassell said Monsanto was concentrating on four key crops — corn, cotton, wheat and oilseeds.

“Potatoes are more of a niche crop,” he said. “We’ve been through a lot of changes; we can’t do everything we want to do at the same time.”

Chris Novak, spokesman for Syngenta Biotech Communication, Boise, Idaho, said the company has Attribute, an insect-protected sweet corn hybrid that protects against damage by European corn borers, corn earworms and fall army worms.

Two banana varieties are expected to be in Syngenta’s marketing pipeline in the next five years, he said.

Seminis, a subsidiary of Mexico’s Savia SA de CV — the majority owner of Bionova Holding Corp. — claims to be the largest developer, producer and marketer of vegetable seeds in the world. A company spokesman said it is only modestly exploring the possibilities of biotech.

“At present, most of our work with biotechnology is in the very early stages, including feasibility studies and basic discovery,” said Gary Koppenjan, corporate communications manager for Seminis Inc., Oxnard, Calif.

BUILDING BLOCKS

Gianessi said the two crops with significant market acceptance are the Seminis squash and the ringspot resistant papaya. He said Syngenta’s Bt sweet corn isn’t being adapted widely.

He said the prospects of making advances in biotech plant improvement hinge on consumer acceptance.

Gianessi estimated Monsanto invested $100 million in the NewLeaf program and was set to introduce consumer benefits in later versions, including bruise-resistant varieties and a potato that would absorb less oil.

“You are not going to see them, because they shut down the potato company,” he said.

Even with the halting progress of biotech so far, there is a sense that baby steps will lead to long strides in biotech acceptance.

Delan Perry, president of the Hawaiian Papaya Industry Association, said growers there were waiting on official acceptance of the rainbow variety in Japan and Canada. However, he said most consumers won’t hesitate to buy the rainbow.

“People are more interested in nice looking, sweet-tasting Hawaiian papayas than its breeding,” he said.