Iowa and other US Farmers Worried Over
Increasing Global Opposition to GE Foods
Genetically altered crops face resistance-- Acceptance of U.S.-grown
biotech foods has met opposition in major export markets.
by Anne Fitzgerald
Careful. Some people think a monster may be lurking in your bowl of
cereal or in that bagel you're about to bite.
"Frankenstein food" is what they call cereal, bread, pasta and other
products containing components derived from new-fangled field crops that are
created through gene splicing and other high-tech procedures.
The opponents include a number of consumer groups, as well as Greenpeace,
the international environmental advocacy group. The critics believe that
when gene splicing is involved, unintended and harmful results may occur.
Rubbish, say proponents, who contend there is no difference between
biotech- based crops and their conventionally bred cousins.
"There is a lot of misunderstanding about the safety of corn enhanced by
biotechnology," said Susan Keith, an official with the National Corn Growers
Association in Washington, D.C.
As the nation's No. 1 corn-and soybean-producing state, Iowa is in the
thick of the growing debate.
But everyone in the grain trade -from farmers and grain handlers to grain
processors and exporters -will be affected by the outcome, as will consumers.
The stakes are especially high for Des Moines-based Pioneer Hi- Bred
International Inc. whose corporate mantra is "technology that yields." Since
the 1980s, Pioneer has invested hundreds of millions to develop high-tech
Last year, 24 percent of the U.S. corn crop and 38 percent of the
nation's soybean crop were grown from seed developed with biotechnology.
Outside the United States, though, it's a different story. Biotech-based
crops have run into strong resistance in key export markets, including
Europe and Japan.
That opposition is frustrating to biotech supporters who had expected the
world to embrace the new technology.
Worse yet, some foreign markets may block all U.S. grain shipments
because the grain trade comingles high-tech crops with conventional produce.
"It's scary," said Keith, an Iowa native who has tracked the issue
closely for the corn grower association.
The next step, she said, could be bans on U.S. meat because livestock
from this country has been fed genetically engineered grain.
There, too, Iowa has much to lose, since it is the No. 1 pork- producing
state in the nation and a major beef producer.
For the soybean industry, the stakes are even higher, since more than
half of all U.S. soybeans are shipped overseas. At this point, Europe is king,
consuming about 40 percent of all U.S. soybean exports.
Right now, European consumer opposition to genetically engineered crops
and a regulatory process that moves like molasses has industry officials worried.
"When you look at Europe, you get depressed, you really get depressed,"
said Jim Hershey, an international marketing director for the American Soybean
Association in St. Louis, Mo.
The biotech battle pits leading farm trade groups, major seed companies
and large grain exporters against a broad-based coalition of environmentalists,
consumer-rights activists and organic food advocates.
Proponents believe the new class of crops is the key to feeding an
exploding global population, while opponents contend that transgenic plants could
wreak havoc on the ecosystem and the food chain.
If the critics have their way, biotech crops will have to be segregated
traditional strains, from field through food manufacturing.
In addition, products containing biotech crop components would have to
carry special labels -a prospect that proponents say is expensive.
So far, the opposition has been most muted in the United States and most
pronounced in Europe.
But it is also cropping up in other countries, including Japan, South
Korea, Thailand and Australia. Lately, it's become more vocal here at home, too.
"It's getting progressively worse," said Kenneth Hobbie, president of the
U.S. Grains Council.
The worldwide educational process is slow, said Hershey of the soybean
There has been some progress, he said, "but then another brush fire pops
"Right now, it's blazing very hot in the U.K.," he added.
The stakes are high on both sides.
On one side are issues of food safety and consumers' right to know
what's in their food.
On the other side are the multimillion-dollar investments made in biotech-
based seed products by companies like Pioneer, **Monsanto** Co. and Novartis.
All have extensive operations in Iowa.
The battleground in the biotech food wars is global. Here are some recent
* Meeting in Cartagena, Colombia, last month, an international
environmental treaty organization considered slapping restrictions on the production and
export of not only biotech crops, but also biotech-based pharmaceuticals.
Some countries also sought restrictions on processed grain and other
products containing components derived from the crops, such as beverages
containing corn sweetener.
U.S. representatives at the meeting teamed with allies from Canada and
four other nations to thwart the attempt, although industry experts anticipate
the battle to continue.
* Greenpeace and other groups opposed to the new class of crops have sued
the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, calling for it to rescind its
approval of Bt crops, including corn.
Bt corn was designed to thwart the European corn borer and is named for
bacillus thuringiensis, a naturally occurring bacterium inserted into corn.
Bt products were introduced three years ago and now account for about 40
percent of U.S. corn acreage, although most of the Bt hybrids have not been
approved in overseas markets.
* The European Union has blocked shipments of U.S. corn exports because
conventional commodity corn is mixed with genetically engineered corn.
Now, concerns are mounting that the Europeans may block shipments of corn
gluten, a livestock feed product that results from the corn wet milling
process. Were that to happen, it would eliminate a $550 million market for
* The EU also has passed a law requiring special labeling on food
products containing components derived from transgenic crops, and it is expected to
approve similar legislation governing livestock feed.
There is also talk of requiring the special labeling for meat products
from livestock fed the grain of high-tech crops.
Reporter Anne Fitzgerald can be reached at (515) 284-8122 or