Web note: Biotech industry and USDA statements that biotech crop acreage is
increasing (based on industry estimates) should not be taken literally. For
example last year (see the Associated Press story pasted in below) the USDA
admitted that biotech corn was projected to be down from 25% of US acreage
in 1999 to 19.5% in 2000; and that GE soybean acreage was down from 57% to
54%. The Canadian press, in a similar vein, reported that GE canola acreage
was projected to be down 10% from its acreage in 1999. And of course several
GE crops (tomatoes and potatoes) are completely off the market. Now the
government and industry seem to be conveniently forgetting what the USDA
said in March of 2000 and are ignoring a global study which found GE crop
acreage worldwide is leveling off, not increasing.
Farmers Have Love-Hate Relationship With Biotech
March 31, 2001
By STEPHANIE SIMON, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
ST. LOUIS--They've been burned by biotech yet are planting it still. And
American farmers are expected to plant more genetically engineered
soybeans this spring than ever before--beans that will show up in processed
foods from ice cream to salad dressing to veggie burgers. It should be a
banner year for biotech cotton too, according to federal projections
released Friday. And genetically modified corn will likely hold steady,
accounting for about a quarter of the total U.S. corn crop.
This, despite growing public unease over tinkering with the food supply
and tough international strictures against genetically engineered products.
The issue heated up over the winter when StarLink, a type of biotech corn
that had not been approved for human consumption, turned up in taco shells,
corn dogs and scores of other foods--even in some bags of seed that had been
advertised as the old-fashioned, conventional variety, free of genetic
The ensuing uproar exposed how difficult it is to segregate genetically
Pollen drifts from one field to another. Stray biotech kernels stick to
farm equipment and roll off into batches of non-engineered crops. Mix-ups
happen at seed companies, in grain elevators, in processing mills. And it
has proved to be impossible to catch every slip.
Tests routinely conducted on raw grain to determine biotech content
"are intended to be risk-management tools," explained Michael Russell of the
testing firm GeneScan USA. "But to give you a foolproof answer? It can't be
Tainted Corn Sinks Deal
The uncertainty has cost some farmers big. Yet it has not diminished
their excitement about a technology that lets scientists splice a gene from,
say, soil bacteria into a soybean plant, giving the crop remarkable new
Take Illinois grower Bernie Gordon. He lost $40,000 last year when his
seed dealer warned him that his corn, which he had thought was biotech-free,
could be contaminated with StarLink. Gordon had secured an excellent price
for his crop, 30 cents a bushel above market rate, because it was not
genetically altered. The StarLink scare sunk that deal. Even though his crop
never tested positive for the contaminant, his $40,000 premium evaporated.
Gordon remains bitter about the loss. But not about biotech. He'll be
out there on his family farm later this spring, planting genetically altered
It's the same story at Alan Roebke's farm in southwest Minnesota.
Roebke is so irate about the StarLink mess that he's sued the company that
developed the seed. Though his crops were never found to be tainted, he
alleges that unease over StarLink contamination was the reason corn prices
dropped by 25%, devastating his income. "It just put an incredible black
mark on American corn in general," he fumed.
Yet this year, as last, all his soybeans and about a third of his corn
will be biotech varieties. "We like them," Roebke explains. "Very much."
Genes Work, Invisibly
The biotech traits that so excite farmers are invisible to the public.
The corn doesn't look or taste any better; it's been engineered to produce a
natural insecticide that kills the dreaded European corn borer. The soybeans
aren't any more nutritious; they've been boosted with a gene that lets them
stand up to a popular herbicide, so a farmer can spray his whole field at
once and kill off the weeds while leaving the beans unscathed.
In certain regions of the country, the genetically engineered products
have fast become indispensable.
The latest government projections indicate that 63% of this year's
soybean crop will be biotech--up from 54% last year. "We've been sold out of
[biotech] beans since last December," reports Jeff Lacina, a spokesman for
the Garst Seed Co. He believes they'll sell more biotech corn than last year
too, though the government survey predicts a slight drop.
"This is such an amazing, such a super technology," said Fred Yoder,
who will be testing two types of biotech corn on his 1,000-acre farm in
Transferring that enthusiasm to the consumer has proved tricky.
Surveys consistently show that American consumers are wary of
genetically altered food; at least 75% want it labeled. Yet there is no
consensus on what should trigger a label. Could a processed food be
considered "non-biotech" if 5% of its ingredients were from gene enhanced
crops? That's the standard Japan now uses. The European Union takes a much
stricter approach: If just 1% of any one ingredient is biotech, the whole
food must be labeled "genetically modified."
That debate is just heating up here.
But some critics of biotechnology wonder if it is already moot.
"The government has allowed this technology to become ubiquitous," said
Joseph Mendelson, legal director of the Center for Food Safety. "How will we
ever get it out? It will be very difficult to purify."
Indeed, nearly everyone agrees that total purity is not realistic. Just
as the Food and Drug Administration allows two maggots per 100 grams of
tomato sauce, or 1,250 insect fragments in 10 grams of oregano, so too will
the government have to set standards for how much genetically altered
material is acceptable in foods marketed as non-biotech.
"Zero tolerance is totally, unequivocally impossible in a scientific
world," Russell said.
That understood, farmers insist they'll do their best to segregate
biotech, since that's what Europe and Japan demand and what the American
consumer seems to want.
They have asked farm equipment designers for tools that are easier to
clean, so biotech kernels won't cling to them. They're also working on
developing a paper trail that could certify a product as non-biotech from
the seed store to the grocery shelf.
"We need to earn respect back from the public. We need to show them we
know how to handle these products," said Yoder, the Ohio farmer.
He professes total faith in biotech crops. But he'll spend an extra 20
minutes this spring ridding his planter of every last genetically altered
seed before moving to a field of conventional corn. He'll create a buffer
zone around his biotech field, treating all the conventional crops along the
perimeter as though they were biotech, just in case they've been
"It's a shame we have to do all this," Yoder sighed. "But the customer
is always right."
The Associated Press
By PHILIP BRASHER
WASHINGTON (AP) - Farmers are turning away from genetically engineered
crops, especially a biotech corn that's toxic to insects, amid consumer
resistance that started overseas and is now being felt in the United States.
Plantings of the gene-altered corn are projected to drop 24 percent this
year, according to findings of an Agriculture Department survey released
Friday. The report also suggested declines in biotech varieties of cotton
``We don't want to go out here and spend any more money ... than we
absolutely have to,'' said Allan Morris, who farms near Mason, Ill. ``We
can't afford to do that with the margins we have in agriculture.''
Biotech crops had caught on quickly in the late 1990s despite the relatively
high cost of the seed.
Europeans were the first to balk at buying biotech grain, which wary Britons
have dubbed ``Frankenfoods,'' but there is also resistance in Asia, and a
handful of U.S. companies now are turning them down, including baby food
makers and snack-food giant Frito-Lay Inc. U.S. regulators insist that the
biotech crops are no different from conventional versions.
The biotech corn, known as Bt corn for a bacteria gene that it contains,
became especially controversial last year after a Cornell University study
suggested it could be killing Monarch butterflies.
According to the USDA survey, farmers in major corn-producing states intend
to plant 19 percent of their corn acreage this year to the Bt variety, down
from 25 percent in 1999.
Plantings of biotech cotton are projected to decline from 55 percent last
year to 48 percent in 2000. Some 52 percent of this year's soybean acreage
is expected to be a biotech variety that is resistant to a popular
herbicide. About 57 percent of soybeans last year were herbicide resistant,
including a small amount that was conventionally bred.
``Producers are just trying to protect themselves. The industry seems to be
saying they want less biotech and that's what their interest is, going to
where the industry is telling them to go,'' said Don Roose, an analyst with
U.S. Commodities Inc.
Farm groups had expected the reduction in biotech corn because of resistance
to the crop in overseas markets and a decline in infestations of the
European corn borer, the pest the corn is designed to kill.
``Farmers need markets. They always say the consumer is king, and the
consumer in this case isn't that interested in genetically engineered
corn,'' said Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Seed companies have insisted that demand for biotech varieties is in line
with last year, although some have been offering discounts to farmers to
maintain sales. Monsanto Co.'s biotech sales are ``flat to marginally
better'' than last year, said spokesman Dan Verakis.
Jerry Dittrich, who farms near Tilden, Neb., planted at least 75 percent of
his corn and soybean acreage to biotech varieties last year and isn't
cutting back. They save work and reduce the need for insecticides and
herbicides, he said. ``I haven't seen any proof that it's not safe,'' he
But Morris, the Illinois farmer, planted Bt seed on just 10 percent of his
corn acreage in 1999 and said he's going to grow even less this year.
Overall, farmers plan to plant an estimated 77.9 million acres of corn this
year, up 1 percent from 1999, and a record 74.9 million acres of soybeans,
also a 1 percent increase, according to the USDA survey.
Total cotton plantings are expected to reach 15.6 million acres this year,
an increase of 5 percent from last year, and the second-largest acreage
since 1962. Sugarbeet acreage is expected to rise by 1 percent to 1.6
Wheat acreage is expected to total 61.7 million acres, down 2 percent from
1999, reflecting a shift to crops that producers consider more lucrative.
Soybeans have become increasingly popular with farmers in recent years
because of federal price supports that make the crop more profitable than
some other commodities, according to analysts.
On the Net: USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service site:
USDA's biotechnology site: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/biotechnology