(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.

BIOTECH BLIP

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.

WAL-MART SUPPORT

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.

With 10 years of biotech agriculture and not a single problem with the food supply, Ryan believes that momentum will eventually shift toward biotechnology in food.

“When they came up with the term ‘frankenfood’ it stuck and put it in the mind of people that it was not good, and people have had a hard time getting beyond that,” he said.

BEING TESTED

USDA Web site reports field test applications it regulates, including numerous field test permits for a variety of fruits and vegetables.

For example:

  • the Web site said biotech seed companies are conducting 25 field tests on biotech virus-resistant squash.


  • About 100 field test applications were listed for biotech potatoes, measuring late blight resistance, cold tolerance, virus resistance, insect resistance, starch content, bruising susceptibility, growth on synthetic media and beta carotene levels.


  • Biotech field tests on pineapple include altering ethylene metabolism for product life, nematode resistance and sweetness.


  • Tests listed for pears included a study on fruit ripening and another on fire blight resistance, while field tests on biotech carrots are examining fungus resistance and nutritional quality.


  • There are 10 field tests active on biotech grapefruit, measuring resistance to citrus canker, aphids and other pests.


  • Lettuce field tests include one that would create herbicide tolerance.


CONSUMER VOTE

The ERS study says questions remain about genetically engineered food, from consumer acceptance to environmental affect.

Fernandez-Cornejo said it was “too speculative” to gauge consumer acceptance of biotech fresh fruits and vegetables.

The study notes that since 1987, there have been more than 11,600 applications from seed producers to the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service for field testing of genetically engineered varieties.

Of that total, more than 10,700 — 92% — have been approved. Most of the applications relate to major crops. In fact, 5,000 approved applications were for biotech corn, followed by soybeans, potatoes, cotton, tomatoes and wheat.

The study showed that herbicide resistance and insect resistance have been the most common benefit of genetically altered varieties, with more than 6,600 approved applications involving one of those two traits.

The adoption of biotech seeds by soybean, corn and cotton farmers has resulted in a steady increase in acreage.