- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 26, 2002

HAVANA
Can biotechnology save Cuba's sugar industry? Something has to.
About 100,000 fewer machete-wielding cane cutters and factory workers are taking to the Cuban fields and mills this month in the saddest sugar harvest here in recent memory.
Since June, Cuba has shuttered 71 of its 156 sugar mills and ordered more than half the country's sugar fields used for other crops. The country is bracing for a historic low sugar output, and it will be more difficult than ever to sell what it produces.
World sugar prices continue to plunge to all-time lows as the cost of the petroleum needed to process Cuba's once all-important crop rises. Long gone are the days when the Soviet bloc paid Cuba above-market prices for sugar while supplying the island nation with cheap fuel.
"We have analyzed this at the highest government levels," said Nelson Labrada, vice minister of Cuba's Sugar Ministry. "We have arrived at the conclusion that we have to innovate."
The ministry said last year's sugar harvest brought in $380 million $120 million less than the year before and far from the $1 billion annually Cuba could count on a decade ago. This year's sales could plunge by another 50 percent.
"Prices remain stagnant and that's unlikely to change," said John Kavulich, president of the New York-based U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. "Cuba is a highly inefficient producer of raw sugar. Sugar production has been a huge financial drain for years."
Necessity may be the mother of invention, but in Cuba desperation is a close kin.
That is where Havana's Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology comes in.
Gil Enriquez and other scientists at the center in a Havana suburb are tinkering with the sugar cane's genes, splicing in material from a bacterium that produces fructose. Natural sugar cane yields sucrose, common table sugar.
Fructose, which is less fattening and twice as sweet as sucrose, is used in thousands of products, from corn syrup to fast-food hamburger buns.
If successful, Cuba would need much less cane to produce the same amount of sweetener and be able to fetch premium prices a prospect so promising that Cuba obtained a U.S. patent five years ago on its process of engineering fructose into sugar cane.
It is one of about two dozen U.S. patents the Cubans hold, obtained mostly to keep other non-embargoed countries from profiting from their inventions. In the case of fructose sugar cane, Cuba hopes its patent position will give it a commercial edge when it reaches the world market.
Mr. Enriquez said he is ready to plant his experiments outdoors, but obtaining such permission from Cuban regulators is a lengthy process and the fructose sugar cane is years away from supermarket shelves.
Mr. Enriquez's mission is about more than economics. National pride is at stake. Sugar is still the country's No. 1 export, ahead of nickel and even tobacco, although tourism has replaced sugar as the biggest source of hard currency. The sugar industry employs about 400,000 workers.
"This country is very sentimental about sugar," Mr. Enriquez said.
Closer to attaining the open field is sugar cane genetically modified to make it more pest-resistant. About a dozen of these plants are growing in a greenhouse behind the Havana biotech center, promising to reduce growing expenses by requiring less pesticide.
Others at the center are tinkering with sugar cane's genome to make it more resistant to weed killers and disease. Mr. Labrada also talks about using sugar cane to fuel electric generators, as a source of ethanol and even as a source for cancer-fighting drugs.
Even if the Cuban scientists succeed with their biotechnology projects Mr. Enriquez for one says he is close they have other hurdles to clear. The European Union, the biggest market open to Cuba, has temporarily banned all new imports of genetically modified foods in the face of consumer resistance.
Even in the United States, with which Cuba can't do business because of a 40-year-old U.S.-enforced trade embargo, whether consumers will accept genetically modified sugar remains an open question.
An increasing number of U.S. acres are being planted with engineered crops and 80 percent of the country's soy and one-third of its corn is modified. But public resistance is cropping up, especially with sugar.
The Food and Drug Administration has approved a genetically engineered sugar beet for market, but U.S. farmers have shunned them after major sugar refiners announced they wouldn't buy them.
International concern is growing about the health consequences of genetically modified food. No illness has been attributed to eating modified food but no long-term health studies have been conducted either.
"They've really put a lot of scientific effort into reducing fertilizers and pesticides," said Doreen Stravlinsky of Greenpeace, which opposes most biotechnology. "But there are so many unknown impacts of genetically modified organisms."
Miss Stravlinsky said Cuba and other developing nations where farmers are thinking about using biotechnology should look at other, natural ways to improve their crop yields.
"Genetic engineering is expensive and American companies own most of the patents," Miss Stravlinsky said. "Biotechnology is no silver bullet."

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