Ten years ago biotech advancement was heralded as the dawn of a new era that could reduce world hunger, help the environment and bolster struggling farmers.

 

Now, biotech beans, cotton, corn and canola are profit-drivers at Monsanto and are lifting the fortunes of rival companies such as Swiss-based Syngenta and Dow AgroSciences LLC, a unit of Dow Chemical Co.

 

The gains are largely due to a broad US acceptance of crops that have been genetically altered to withstand weed killers and insects, and backers say, generate higher yields.

 

But as the industry celebrates its 10th anniversary, the early promises of biotech crops remain largely unrealised, and many countries have banned the technology amid concerns about potential danger for human health and the environment.

 

Joel Cohen, senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, said: "GM products have not lived up to those early exaggerated expectations. We now have a series of very dependable, reliable crops using this technology. But there is still a large precautionary perspective."

 

Indeed, for nearly every step forward, there is a step back.

 

Market acceptance

 

Last month, cereal giant Kellogg announced it would start using healthy low linolenic oil derived only from Monsanto's biotech soybean in its biscuits, crackers and other food products.

 

"GM products have not lived up to those early exaggerated expectations"

Joel Cohen,
Senior research fellow,
International Food Policy Research Institute

But less than two weeks later, rival Kraft Foods, the world's second-largest food producer, said it would stop supplying all genetically engineered food products, including additives, to China due to a lack of market acceptance.

 

Pepsico and Coca-Cola have made similar pledges.

 

There have been other recent setbacks, including a decision in November by Swiss voters to ban the planting of biotech crops for five years, and the recent revelation in Australia that a biotech pea caused health problems in research mice, forcing cancellation of that project.

 

In 2004 Monsanto was forced to withdraw biotech wheat it planned to sell in the United States and Canada because of strong market opposition. Other failed projects include Monsanto's delayed-ripening tomato and a healthier potato.

 

GM failures

 

Margaret Mellon, director of the Agriculture and Biotechnology Programme at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said: "Genetic engineering has not delivered on any of its promises for human health benefits. There are a lot of failures scattered at the side of the road."

 

"Genetic engineering has not delivered on any of its promises for human health benefits"

Margaret Mellon,
Director, Agriculture and Biotechnology Programme

Other critics say biotech crops have created more problems than they have solved, creating herbicide-resistant weeds, for instance.

 

Backers say biotech crops are good for the environment, because they can reduce the amount of chemicals needed to grow healthy crops. Opponents say chemical use increases many times because of weed resistance and other problems.

 

And they say that farmer profits tied to better yields get eaten up by the higher prices they pay for biotech seeds.

 

Critics say the technology has not eased hunger because many poor countries are unable or unwilling to adopt it.

 

Good growth

 

Still, acreage planted with biotech crops around the world is increasing and this year topped more than 1 billion acres sown to soybeans, corn, cotton, canola and other crops.

 

"There will be some continuing bumps in the road, but we are starting to see a balance of very good news and growth. The genie is way out of the bottle"

Pete Siggelko,
Dow AgroSciences vice-president of plant genetics

An industry report is expected to show good growth not only in the United States but in many other countries. Barriers in Europe are slowly lowering and new products in the pipeline should help improve acceptance, biotech backers say.

 

Pete Siggelko, Dow AgroSciences vice-president of plant genetics, said: "We're now 10 years into it, on a billion acres in 17 countries. There will be some continuing bumps in the road, but we are starting to see a balance of very good news and growth. The genie is way out of the bottle."     

 

Cotton, corn, soybeans and canola, all first rolled out in the 1995/1996 growing seasons, remain the top biotech crops but the future should bring new crops, biotech backers say.

 

Iran became the first country to commercialise biotech rice in 2004, approving a pest-resistant variety.

 

And Syngenta last year announced a new strain of "golden rice" that produces up to 23 times as much beta-carotene as previous varieties. The rice will be available freely to research centres across Asia.