Future of Biotech Rests with the Consumer

Makers of GMO crops are butting heads with the public. Compiled by staff

Published on: Jun 8, 2004

The recent setbacks in the global introduction of new biotech crops may be setting a precedent for how genetically modified (GM) crops will be produced and marketed in the future.

"It seems to me that an issue being raised is whether the development of GM characteristics in plants will shift away from enhancing yield and other production characteristics, toward enhancing characteristics that benefit consumers directly — such as medicinal characteristics," says Carl Zulauf, an Ohio State agricultural economist with the Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics. "Almost daily we read about the medical impact of crop and livestock characteristics on human health. Maybe this latest debate on GM crops will shift its focus away from high yields and weed control to developing characteristics that consumers want."

Monsanto, the United States leader in GM crop production, recently halted its global introduction of a Round-up Ready (herbicide-resistant) wheat plant, in response to international resistance and growing concerns from U.S. producers regarding market share setbacks. Other companies, such as Syngenta and Bayer CropScience, have also backed off in their introduction of GM crops, such as Bt corn and a GM sugar beet to European markets. These events, along with other issues surrounding GM crops such as international regulations, are raising questions about where the future of GM crops is headed.

"The crops that are currently being introduced have no tangible benefits for consumers and some are saying why should we bear all the risk for something that has no direct benefit to us whatsoever," says Ian Sheldon, an Ohio State agricultural economist, who added that the issue with GM wheat is important because it’s a crop directly consumed by humans. "You can make claims about pesticide use reduction or yield gains, but most consumers, in Europe especially, don’t see any benefit to these crops right now."

Both Sheldon and Zulauf agree that the issue of GM foods has mainly to do with consumer sovereignty. That is, consumers decide what they want and don’t want to buy and then producers grow and market products to meet consumer desires. And when consumers, specifically Europeans and Asians, continue to butt heads with companies on GM products, it ultimately impacts markets.

"There is a substantive divide between the U.S., which is generally accepting of GM foods, and Europe (Western Europe, especially), which is not accepting of GM products," says Zulauf. Sheldon, adds that most surveys indicate about 70% of Europeans don’t want GM crops or are concerned about GM products, whereas in most U.S. surveys the feeling is just the opposite.

"Markets are made up of consumers and supplies and, interestingly, this is a case where producers in North America are very concerned about losing market share," says Sheldon. "There’s an old saying that consumers are always right and I think producers recognize even if the technology would save them time they are not willing to lose that market share."

"It’s a matter of staying competitive. Countries have a lot of alternatives for buying wheat," says Zulauf. "If we are going to be an exporter and a large and increasing share of the world’s population doesn’t want GM crops, it’s going to put the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage if we continue to go in the direction of GM crops. Given the Europeans’ stance and the fact that major Asian importers seem to be aligning themselves with the European point of view, we could essentially shut ourselves out of the market if we try to export GM wheat."