With agricultural biotechnology under siege by activists, the giant agrochemical companies have produced a $50 million initiative aimed at convincing the public that biotech foods are desirable. One argument they throw out is the capacity for genetic engineering to improve foods' nutritional quality, taste and texture.

Indeed, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman last week harkened to the promise of enhanced foods, telling the Consumer Federation of America 2000 National Food Policy Conference that "the second generation of biotechnology products will be coming out of the laboratories and into the supermarkets. And these foods will have been adapted through biotechnology hopefully to have direct consumer benefits, as in better tasting, nutritionally fortified and longer lasting" (see Online Links, A7).

But despite this newfound consumerist tilt, the industry looks to be stuck waging a war of words with its opponents, as agbio's development pipeline indicates that enhanced foods won't appear on supermarket shelves until close to the middle of the decade.

Ironically, a primary reason these nutritionally improved ambassadors for agricultural biotech have not appeared sooner is that a significant market for the first enhanced products has not been seen in the First World. This lack of economic incentives, coupled with the technological challenges of identifying and manipulating the pathways that control such "output" traits as higher protein or altered fat content, mean that real nutritional improvements are not due until 2003 at the earliest.

Indeed, it is difficult to predict how many or what kinds of improved crops actually will emerge. Companies like Agritope Inc. expect to produce transgenic vegetables with a longer shelf life and greater ripeness upon arrival at the supermarket, while Monsanto Co. (St. Louis, Mo.), and AstraZeneca plc (LSE:AZN, London, U.K.) have released development timelines for their consumer-oriented output trait crops (see "Output Traits", A4).

But other giants such as Novartis Seeds Inc. (Golden Valley, Minn.), Dow AgroSciences LLC (Indianapolis, Ind.) and Aventis CropSciences (Strasbourg, France) say only that their projects are too early stage to discuss publicly, while BASF AG (Ludwigshafen, Germany), is new to the game, recently announcing that it would invest E700 million ($673 million) in plant biotechnology (see BioCentury March 20).