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Obama: Friend of genetically engineered crops?

WASHINGTON – The agricultural biotechnology business could hardly have had a better friend than George W. Bush.

His administration challenged the European Union’s anti-biotech regulations and avoided imposing rules domestically that would hinder the industry’s growth, with the exception of the most controversial products, such as pharmaceutical crops.

But there are clues President-elect Barack Obama could be an ally of the industry, too, especially in the effort to put biotech crops into widespread use in Africa. These hints come from both statements of policy and the type of people from whom he’s taking advice.

Consider:

• Obama explicitly endorsed genetically engineered crops in an answer to a candidate questionnaire initiated by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and other scientific groups. He said biotech crops “have provided enormous benefits” to farmers and expressed confidence “that we can continue to modify plants safely.”

• His top scientific advisers during the campaign included Sharon Long, a former board member of the biotech giant Monsanto Co., and Harold Varmus, a Nobel laureate who co-chaired a key study of genetically engineered crops by the National Academy of Sciences back in 2000.

• Obama has endorsed the idea of a second Green Revolution, a concept understood to include biotechnology, to feed the world’s growing population. In an exchange of letters in June with Norman Borlaug, the Iowa-born plant breeder who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the first Green Revolution, Obama said he was “deeply committed to greater agriculture research and global agricultural development.”

• Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, an outspoken proponent of agricultural biotechnology, is considered a leading candidate to become Obama’s agriculture secretary. The Biotechnology Industry Organization named him its governor of the year in 2001.

• Obama has called for doubling foreign development aid to $50 billion and establishing a special initiative to provide farmers in poor countries with affordable fertilizer and “improved seeds.” Obama’s official statements on development are “pretty strong on agricultural science,” said Robert Paarlberg, author of the recent book, “Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept Out of Africa.” “I certainly haven’t seen any sense of opposition to technology.”

Obama’s administration will be closely watched to see whether he follows through. Public and congressional interest in boosting world food production could wane, given the recent plunge in commodity prices and the global economic slowdown.

“We need an across-the-board revival of our agricultural development work,” said Paarlberg, a Wellesley College professor.

A doubling of government spending on agricultural research over five years could lift more than 280 million people out of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute.

However, U.S. spending on foreign agricultural research has fallen dramatically since the 1980s.

And even though Congress inserted $150 million in agricultural development assistance in an emergency spending bill this year at a time when food prices were soaring worldwide, that extra money only compensated for a cut that lawmakers had made earlier in the aid budget.

Paarlberg says U.S. agricultural aid is needed to help African scientists do their own modification of food crops.

“Let them get comfortable with the technology, and let them sell it to their governments,” he said.

In the long run, he says, that would make biotechnology more acceptable in Africa than continuing to push the biotech products from U.S. seed companies like Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-Bred.

Africa is home to more than 900 million people, or 14 percent of the world’s population. Regardless of how it’s done, the U.S. industry would surely count any president a friend who opens that continent to biotechnology.

Philip Brasher is a reporter for The Des Moines Register. Contact him at pbrasher@dmreg.com.

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Biotech crops expand

The popularity of biotech crops is growing in major regions of the world, including China, India and South America. Not so in Africa. The exceptions:

• South African farmers grew about 4 million acres of genetically engineered corn, soybeans and cotton in 2007, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications.

• Egypt and Burkina Faso recently have decided to allow biotech versions of corn and cotton, respectively.

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