(May 22) Ten years after the first genetically engineered crops were commercially released, questions still persist about the role of biotech in the fresh produce marketplace.
While American farmers have embraced biotech corn, soybeans and cotton in a big way, a U.S. Department of Agriculture study says that Hawaiian papaya and a solitary squash variety represent the only commercial varieties of fresh produce.
In the U.S. this year, nearly nine of 10 acres of soybeans and six of 10 acres of cotton are biotech varieties.
Biotech corn acreage in 2005 accounted for about 35% of the commodity’s total.
However, biotech fruits and vegetables are available in limited quantities, in part reflecting questions over benefits but also because of questions about consumer acceptance.
Only Hawaiian papayas and a variety of virus-resistant squash are marketed in fresh channels, said Jorge Fernandez-Cornejo, economist with the USDA Economic Research Service.
The USDA surveys biotech corn, soybean and cotton acreage, he said May 17.
Data on commercial production of biotech fruits and vegetables are second-hand information, gleaned from industry sources.
However, he said biotech fruits and vegetables have been tested extensively. That could indicate the pipeline for biotech produce may deliver more commercial biotech varieties in coming years.
Researchers are now researching biotechnology to help find canker resistant citrus trees, boost nutritional content of fresh produce and control ripening of fruit, among many other variations.
One retailer believes biotechnology in the produce department will become more of a factor in the future, as long as public confidence in federal regulation and oversight of biotechnology is strong.
“In my view advances in technology that we see in all aspects of business will be applied in the agricultural industry as well,” said Bruce Peterson, senior vice president of perishables for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Bentonville, Ark.
He said Wal-Mart believes that food that is approved by federal agencies can be offered as a choice to its consumers.
Bud Ryan, professor of molecular plant science at Washington State University’s Institute of Biological Chemistry, Pullman, said he believes research being conducted now may be useful commercially in five to 10 years.
He said there have been advances that growers and consumers could benefit from today that are on the shelf. Ryan said a transgenic high protein potato has been developed at WSU that uses only genetic material found in the spud. Still, he said commercial development is a question, with no one eager to market the variety.