Farmers are Deeply Wary about Genetically Engineered Cropsby Paul Clarke
March 28, 2002
When the first crop of genetically altered grain sprouted in 1996, Todd Leake was optimistic. A North Dakota farmer, Leake had read of biotechnology's potential to make farming more profitable while feeding a hungry world. With names like YieldGard and Roundup Ready, these new genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were engineered to resist pests or to tolerate sprayings of weed-killers such as Monsanto's Roundup. GMOs had recently won government approval, and they seemed poised to revolutionize agriculture.
Then the problems started. Consumers, citing safety concerns, balked at the new food, while environmentalists protested the potential for ecological harm. European food giants Unilever and Nestle sought GMO-free grain supplies from countries such as Brazil, while governments worldwide scrambled to develop new food-import and labeling laws. With American grain piling up in European ports, farmers like Todd Leake saw their export markets evaporate. "By the time it became evident to everyone that we were losing the EU markets, it was basically too late," said Leake.
Genetically altered plants are now ubiquitous in the United States, accounting for 68 percent of this year's soybean crop and 69 percent of cotton. But these numbers conceal a growing unease among farmers. Between 1996 and 1999, grain prices fell as exports to Europe dropped by $2 billion. The altered seeds' higher cost and lackluster yields bother some farmers, as do nagging questions about the crops' health and environmental impacts. Genetic engineering, billed as a boon to farmers, is apparently being renounced by growing numbers of them.
Much of the current wariness can be traced to last year's StarLink corn fiasco. "I think StarLink brought GMOs home to roost with farmers," said Dan McGuire, policy committee chairman for the American Corn Growers Association (ACGA). A variety of altered corn unapproved for use in human food, StarLink accounted for less than 1 percent of last year's crop. When mixed with other corn at grain elevators, though, it contaminated nearly half the total harvest. The discovery of StarLink in Taco Bell taco shells prompted a recall in September 2000; ultimately more than 300 StarLink-tainted products were pulled from supermarket shelves. The problem gained international significance when Japan and South Korea, the biggest foreign buyers of U.S. corn, rejected contaminated shipments of grain. Plantings of GMO corn stalled after the StarLink incident, and some estimates even show a drop in this year's acreage.
Export markets continue to suffer in StarLink's aftermath. McGuire said that in the 1996 marketing year, the United States exported nearly 3 million tons of corn to Europe; this year, only about 2,500 tons were shipped during the same period. "The point is, Europe is still importing millions of tons of corn — just not from us," said McGuire. With Asian markets similarly depressed, corn growers are worried. The ACGA, while technically neutral on GMOs, sees the lost markets as a serious threat and is encouraging its 14,000 members to question their planting decisions. "If the market says you shouldn't be growing a certain type of grain and you grow it anyway, then that's not a very market-oriented direction," said McGuire. "This is what farmers need to think about."
While lost markets are most farmers' main concern, for others they're only the beginning. "They've taken our markets away, they've contaminated our countryside, and we've paid a great price by losing control of our seed stocks," said Bill Christison, a soybean and corn farmer from Chillicothe, Mo. As president of the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC), Christison is one of the farm community's more vocal critics of GMOs, and he holds biotech companies responsible for many of the problems farmers now face. Christison worries that altered crops will lead to resistant strains of insects and "super-weeds," and he is bothered by the consolidation of seed and chemical companies into fewer and larger corporations. Though the altered crops offer convenience, he said, in the long run they'll do more harm than good. "We're losing not only our international markets but the confidence of U.S. consumers."
Facing these problems, many farmers are fighting back. In 1999, more than 25 farm groups, including the NFFC and the ACGA, gathered in Virginia to develop a Farmers' Declaration on Genetic Engineering in Agriculture. Calling for a shift to sustainable production, the declaration's backers also hold biotech companies liable for GMO-related problems and support consumers' rights to GMO-free food. This year, the groups formed the Farmer to Farmer Campaign on Genetic Engineering, and they began hiring staff to pursue the declaration's goals.
"Industry has been very effective in painting all opposition to GMOs as part of a radical environmental movement," said Bill Wenzel, the campaign's national director. Earlier this year, the campaign ran print and radio advertisements in five Midwestern states, encouraging farmers to preserve markets by choosing non-GMO seeds. A series of regional seminars is planned for this winter, at which farmers will be trained to speak on GMOs and encouraged to participate at events and conferences throughout the country. "I think it's important that there's a separate voice out there coming from the mainstream farming community that shows there's a problem with GMOs," Wenzel said.
Even previous biotech supporters are speaking out. Wheat growers, spooked by StarLink, sought laws in several states for a moratorium on Roundup Ready wheat, following Monsanto's announced plans to introduce the crop by 2005. Half of all U.S. wheat is exported, and many foreign markets are already refusing to buy grain containing even traces of Roundup Ready. "When they announced they were going to apply the GMO process to wheat, alarm bells went off," said Leake, a backer of North Dakota's legislation. Drawing support from farm groups like the Dakota Resource Council, the bill easily passed the state House before being torpedoed in the Senate after lobbying from Monsanto. A similar bill in Montana also failed. Despite the strong showing, Leake's outlook for wheat is grim. "I don't see our customers backing down one bit," he said. Canada is now debating whether to agree to purchase the new wheat.
It will be several years before Monsanto learns if this latest venture is successful like soybeans or a flop like StarLink, but many farmers fear they'll lose either way. "It's our livelihoods on the line if this thing fails," said Leake. "For Monsanto, it's just an experiment."
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