19 December 1997

GM crops face new price and attitude snags

By Charles Abel

GENETICALLY modified crops face two new hurdles before they are widely grown in Europe, it emerged at a meeting of biotech specialists in Denmark last week.

Food processing companies may not want to use crops which have been genetically modified to improve food quality and North American experience suggests the technology may be being over-priced.

The industry had hoped public perceptions of GM crops would improve once food processors started using crops which have been genetically modified for improved nutrition, better quality and enhanced taste.

Aversion explained

But the food industry is unlikely to use such material until the publics aversion to GM crops has been overcome, explained Ewald Wermuth of the Dutch Margarine, Oils and Fats Organisation.

"I dont believe functional foods from GM crops will be brought to the market by food processors while the negative image of biotechnology persists. There is just too much risk for the food companies if the technology is rejected."

He sees the current debate as a necessary precursor to adopting the new technology. "We need to go through this phase first."

Proper food labelling will speed that process, he added. "Consumers have the right to choose. But saying a food may contain GM material is meaningless and confusing." He would prefer a "does/does not contain GM" label.

Meanwhile, Canadian growers are adopting GM crops less rapidly than they might, said Max Polon of the Manitoba Canola Growers Association. "Although the benefits of GM crops have been significant, farmers have not had the cost savings they expected, because of the very high seed costs, high chemical costs and/or technical use agreements."

Herbicide tolerant varieties accounted for 30% of Canadas Canola area this year and are expected to peak at 50% next year. However, half the area is sown to herbicide tolerant crops from a non-GM background, based on a mutagenesis process which is not subject to GM regulations.

Seed for Liberty Link GM herbicide tolerant Canola (OSR) from AgrEvo costs $4.50/lb compared with $1.50/lb for a conventional variety. Meanwhile, contracts from Monsanto prevent growers saving seed, require them to use branded Roundup and charge a $15/acre licence fee.

"Weed control costs have been comparable to conventional varieties and to a certain extent this has hindered the development of GM rape. Often the efficacy of weed control has not been what was expected either," he added.

Rate revision?

To combat that, total herbicide rates may be revised next year and formulated mixes with a graminicide are rumoured, he said.

However, with no need for of residual herbicides growers are able to minimise cultivations, which has brought other cost savings, Mr Polon stressed.