While opponents of genetically modified, or GMO, crops and foods around the world celebrated Monsanto Co.'s decision on Monday to shelve its launch of the world's first GMO wheat, food industry analysts note that other biotech food crops continue to edge closer to commercialization.
Next in line is Syngenta AG, a Basel, Switzerland-based seed and biotech crop-engineering company that rivals Monsanto. The company has its own GMO wheat variety slated for release as early as 2007. It also has a genetically modified banana it plans to launch in 2006.
Syngenta says it is undeterred because its biotech projects have more of a consumer and food company appeal. Monsanto's wheat is dubbed Roundup Ready because it would allow farmers to spray Roundup weedkiller on fields without hurting the crop, but it would offer no benefit to the consumer.
"In the olden days, we were selling the benefits of biotech crops to farmers," said Syngenta spokesman Chris Novak. "Today you do need to be able to communicate that there is a benefit to the technology beyond what farmers may be getting. You need to be talking to the food companies as well as consumers."
Indeed, food industry officials said on Tuesday that the acceptance of GMO foods is less a question of science than it is of marketing.
"How consumers see the benefits affecting them is what will make the difference," said Stephanie Childs, spokeswoman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America.
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The GMO successes to date have been seen in just a few crops, including soybeans, corn, canola and cotton.
Those crops have been modified to resist insects, diseases and weedkillers, but are mainly used to produce animal feeds, food additives, industrial compounds or fiber.
But if it makes it into the marketplace, Syngenta's "stay ripe" banana -- genetically engineered to ripen slowly -- would join a handful of GMO crops specifically targeted for direct human consumption.
A GMO papaya is a fruit already available on grocers' stands. It was engineered by Cornell University and the University of Hawaii to resist the ringspot plant disease. Genetically modified squash is also already on store shelves.
Still in the product pipeline is a GMO tomato engineered with a yeast gene to improve juice quality and vine life by specialists at Purdue University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Scientists are also tinkering with strawberries, lettuce and other fruits and vegetables.
"There is a lot of stuff out there," said Lisa Dry, a spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization.
Biotech fruits and vegetables may have an easier path to acceptance because as whole foods they can be easily segregated from conventional offerings.
Wheat, on the other hand, is usually blended for protein, gluten and other traits sought by flour millers. So it would have been nearly impossible to keep biotech wheat segregated from conventional supplies, grain handlers had said.
That fact helped doom Monsanto's plan as some key foreign buyers like Japan said they would not buy any U.S. wheat at all if Monsanto released its biotech wheat into the countryside. U.S. farmers were also very reluctant to take that risk.
Syngenta's efforts to introduce its transgenic wheat are expected to encounter similar problems as anti-biotech forces are already lined up against the product.
"Any genetically modified wheat carries with it the same issues. We're going to have the same problem," said Todd Leake, a spokesman for the Western Organizations Resource Council, a seven-state coalition of farmers and environmentalists.
Syngenta halted field trials in Germany earlier this month after biotech activists destroyed the firm's test plots there.
"Hopefully those who favor biotech wheat will take this chance to develop the customer acceptance component that has to be found before anything is released," said North American Millers' Association vice president Jim Bair. "Clearly, the market wasn't ready for Monsanto's."