The International Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology Research (ICABR)


The Impact of Biotechnology on the Grains and Oilseeds Food Systems


Eluned Jones, Virginia Tech,
Ariadna Bankowska, Agricultural and Applied Economist, Washington, DC.





The engines of change in the crop sector are the self-described `life science' companies that produce seeds with genetically modified traits. These corporations have pumped billions of dollars into the economy, both in terms of research and development of recombinant DNA techniques in their own laboratories and acquisitions of other companies with similar lines of work. These companies are also acquiring considerable market power in their respective sectors.

There are a number of proven approaches to creating relationships between producers of the raw inputs and the producer of the final output. These legal arrangements can be utilized to achieve the main objective; to assure that crops grown with genetically engineered end-use characteristics are delivered to the domestic or export markets which value those attributes most highly. However, the form of the dominant relationship that is eventually adopted will have a significant impact on the structure of the grain and oilseed markets, especially the level of concentration of ownership at the farm level.

This future market structure would be more transparent if the process of change involved only institutional and legal elements. However, the ultimate word on the acceptability of food products rests with consumers. Their preferences, not entirely governed by relative prices, are an important driver of structural changes in how grains and oilseeds are produced and marketed. With the interdependence of overlapping markets at the local, regional, national, and international levels that has emerged over the last few decades, no broad decision that affects the composition of commodities moving through those markets can be made in isolation, without the consideration of cultural influence.

Although the trinary oversight infrastructure (institutional, legal, and cultural) has functioned well in the past, the arrival of agricultural biotechnology has changed market dynamics considerably. The standard contracts under which grain and oilseeds are traded do not included references to the genetic makeup of the seed so there is no regulatory framework to deal with this aspect of marketing.

Testing technology for the presence of GM material is limited to either testing for specific proteins that have been incorporated into the crop, or through the detection of DNA sequences inserted into the crop. With a proliferation of the specific forms of genetic modification, the ability to test at points of assembly for all possible combinations will be an impossible burden on the market infrastructure. Regulation by testing for compliance will be limited to the near future under these circumstances.

Under U.S. merchant law, reasonable precautions to keep GM and non-GM grain and oilseed supplies separate could reasonably result in contamination levels in GM-free supplies that exceed import buyer (and increasing number of US processor) contractual levels. Traceability of GMO’s through sampling and testing is beyond the levels of precision currently mandated by the official inspection services at most ports of origin and destination.

This paper considers the alternative methods by which the market can combine private and public regulatory structures to meet the consumers needs as well as sustain the participants of the grain and oilseed industry; including the use of ‘knowledge center’ interfaces with the market and the use of information flow technology such as bar-coding.



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