by Danielle Knight

Washington , 17 Feb 2000 (IPS) -- Despite seemingly beneficial new scientific breakthroughs in the development of biologically engineered seed, resistance to genetically altered crops is spreading among farmers, investors and the general public.

In a politically diverse panel discussion held here Thursday on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), farmers, public interest scientists and environmentalists remained seriously sceptical of the technology. Other participants, including government officials, corporations and larger research institutions, continued to tout the benefits of the new technology while downplaying the potential environmental and health risks.

Brian Halweil, a researcher at the Worldwatch Institute, portrayed the biotech companies as "an industry in trouble." He said, "Stock prices for agricultural biotech companies are falling, exports of transgenic crops are tumbling, and questions are mounting about the liability for what is turning into a major debacle for farmers."

Responding to growing public alarm over the technology and international efforts to regulate trade in GMOs, share prices for biotech seed companies - which were Wall Street's rising stars just a few years ago - are sinking toward all-time lows.

In May, Europe's largest bank, Deutsche Bank, recommended that investors sell all holdings in companies involved in GMOs.

Investors in Monsanto Company, the industry leader which has borne the brunt of public criticism, have watched the corporation's share price lose nearly one-third of its value in the last year, falling from a high of $50 in February 1999 to a recent low of just $35 per share.

Further complicating the financial picture, said Halweil, are concerns about uninsured liabilities for farmers and agribusiness companies. In November, 30 farm groups, including the National Family Farm Coalition and the American Corn Growers Association (ACGA), warned US farmers that "inadequate testing of gene-altered seeds could make farmers vulnerable to 'massive liability' from damage caused by...the spreading of biologically modified pollens."

US farmers have been caught in the middle of the biotechnology debate between seed dealers, chemical companies, grain traders, consumers abroad, and trade policy, said Gary Goldberg, chief executive officer of the ACGA, which represents about 14,000 farmers.

The ACGA does not oppose genetically-modified crops and many of its members plant them. But as large food companies in Europe, Japan, and Mexico reject GMOs, US farmers are hurting, said Goldberg. Because of lost export corn sales, he estimates that last year farmers lost more than $200 million.

In the United States, Gerber baby foods, Frito-Lay, Seagram's, IAMS pet foods, and others have also made the decision to purchase only non-GMOs. "The question is whether a farmer can afford to plant a crop this coming spring that may not be marketable in the fall," said Goldberg.

Acknowledging the controversy, Dan Glickman, the US secretary of agriculture, recently called for studies assessing the long-term ecological effects of these crops.

But Halweil criticised this effort for coming too late, when already about half the acreage for major commodities like soybeans, cotton, corn and canola in the United States, Argentina and Canada are planted with modified seed. "Widespread commercialisation of these crops has come before - not after - thorough examination of the associated risks and benefits," he said.

Margaret Mellon, director of the sustainable agriculture and biotechnology programme at the Union of Concerned Scientists here said she could count on one hand the number of studies examining the technology's potential risks to human health.

"We have a 'don't look, don't find' regulatory policy," said Mellon. She described the health risks, including the development of possible allergies to GMOs. Scientists do not know the impact of ingesting food or introducing crops into the environment that are designed to contain toxic substances to ward off pests, said Mellon.

Miguel Altieri, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and an international expert on sustainable agriculture, described the possible ecological impacts of GMOs.

Massive use of crops altered to contain toxins can dramatically alter ecological processes and impact non-target organisms, including beneficial insects and micro-organisms in the soil, he said.

The transfer of genes through cross-fertilisation could create super-weeds. And insect pests will quickly develop resistance to crops modified to contain toxins, since they are constantly bombarded with the chemical, according to Altieri.

Altered crops on the market are just a continuation of the "prevailing agricultural model that emphasises chemical-based pest control" and keep farmers vulnerable to pesticide resistance, he added. Concerns over these potential risks recently led countries to draw up the Cartegena Protocol on Biosafety, an international agreement regulating trade in GMOs.

David Sandalow, US assistant secretary of state for environmental affairs, said he was pleased with the international agreement. While acknowledging the potential risks of GMOs, Sandalow and a representative for Monsanto discussed the possible ways the technology could be used as a tool to increase crop yields, prevent blights, and even improve nutrition.

For example, last month, researchers at the Institute of Plant Sciences at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich announced they had successfully developed a strain of genetically modified rice capable of eliminating vitamin A deficiency.

This nutritional problem kills up to two million children a year and is the world's leading cause of blindness. "Biotechnology is not going to feed the world," said Robert Horsch, co-president of Monsanto's sustainable development programme, contradicting previous advertising slogans of the company. "But it is going to be an essential piece of the total solution," he said.

But despite industry claims, biotech companies have channelled most of their research to a limited range of products designed for the capital-intensive farmers of industrialised nations, argued Halweil of Worldwatch. Altered seed products, such as Bt corn and Round-up Ready soybeans, have little relevance to poor, subsistence farmers, who grow different crops facing other problems, like drought, he said. "Beyond this obvious disconnect between advertised objectives and where the money is really going, the search for a biotech fix for hunger clearly distracts attention from hunger's underlying causes and other alternative interventions that may prove more appropriate," said Halweil.(SUNS4610)