The Harsh New Reality for Biotech Food: Show Consumer Benefits or Else

Last Updated May 6, 2010 5:43 PM EDT

The baking industry's tentative thumbs up for the idea of GM wheat offers a stark illustration of the new rules governing the introduction of biotech crops. No longer can biotech companies count on compliant government regulators and a complacent public to give GM technology a free pass. Today, genetically modified food must benefit someone other than Monsanto (MON).

At a biotech convention this week in Chicago, two trade groups representing companies like Sara Lee (SLE) and Hostess Brands said they would be willing to support GM wheat, but only if it has "enhanced characteristics" -- either more nutrients for consumers or improved milling or baking properties for them. Thus far, biotech crops, which are engineered to either withstand the spraying of pesticides or to create their own pesticides, have been an fantastic boon to companies like Monsanto and DuPont (and possibly to farmers, who are able to control bugs and pests more easily). But they've offered exactly nothing for either consumers or food companies. This is one of the reasons why many Americans, when asked, say they don't like the idea of GM foods and would like to avoid them, even though this is nearly impossible since GM soybean and corn ends up in 60%-70% of non-organic processed food.

The American Bakers Association's and the North American Millers' Association's conditional support for GM wheat reverses an earlier opposition. Six years ago, the baking industry nixed the idea of GM wheat, citing consumer uproar. This and other problems prompted Monsanto to abandon its plans to plant Roundup Ready wheat in the spring of 2004.

Similarly, the fates of Roundup Ready sugar beets and Roundup Ready alfalfa, which were first planted in 2008 and 2006 respectively, are tied up in court cases. Monsanto knows that any introduction of a new GM crop, especially one as important as wheat, is going to face an uphill climb. That's why its PR machine has been in overdrive (note the number of articles in which Monsanto executives suggest they are going to solve world hunger). And it's why the company is touting efforts to create drought-tolerant crops and water-efficient maize. Similarly, DuPont's Pioneer Hi-Bred division is working on high oleic soybeans that will give soybean oil more stability and eliminate the need for the hydrogenation process that creates trans fats.

But unless Monsanto (or Dow (DOW), DuPont or Syngenta (SYT), which are also working on GM wheat) comes up with wheat that has the omega-3s of wild salmon and the antioxidants of blueberries, it's hard to see how they're going to succeed in converting America's amber waves of grain to GM technology.

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