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US Grain Farmers Are in a Panic About GE Crops
as Harvest Season Approaches

Food War Claims Its Casualties
High-Tech Crop Fight Victimizes Farmers
By Rick Weiss, Washington Post Staff Writer Sunday, September 12, 1999; Pg A1

As the crucial fall harvest season approaches, many U.S. farmers and
other agricultural workers are in a near panic because of escalating
uncertainty over genetically engineered crops.

Farmers planted millions of acres of the high-tech crops this year. But
foreign buyers are rejecting them in droves, despite aggressive U.S.
marketing efforts and assurances of their safety.

In the past month alone, Japan's two biggest breweries and a major
Mexican corn tortilla maker said they would no longer use U.S.
gene-altered corn in their products, adding to troubles caused by the
European Union's previous large-scale rejection of such crops.

Even Iams Co., the Ohio-based pet food maker, recently told its grain
suppliers it would no longer accept genetically engineered corn for use
in its premium dog and cat chows unless the corn varieties were among
the few approved by the European Union.

Twelve days ago those developments hit home for many farmers, when
Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), the big Illinois-based buyer and exporter
of farm commodities, made the ominous recommendation that U.S. farmers
segregate their gene-altered and non-altered crops at harvest because of
heightened demand for conventional varieties both domestically and
abroad.

The announcement left many farmers feeling angry and betrayed.

"American farmers planted [gene-altered crops] in good faith, with the
belief that the product is safe and that they would be rewarded for
their efforts," the American Corn Growers Association said in a
statement last week. "Instead they find themselves misled by
multinational seed and chemical companies and other commodity
associations who only encouraged them to plant increased acres of [these
crops] without any warning to farmers of the dangers associated with
planting a crop that didn't have consumer acceptance."

More than 40 genetically modified crops have been given the green light
by U.S. regulators as safe to eat and environmentally friendly. And most
farmers express satisfaction with the varieties. The crops contain genes
from bacteria and viruses to make them resistant to insects and weed
killers, promising farmers a better deal.

Agricultural biotechnology companies promoted the gene-altered varieties
heavily during the past two years, and farmers planted them in record
numbers this year. But a wave of consumer distrust that started in
England two years ago has swept around the globe and in recent months
has shown signs of taking hold in the United States -- especially since
the widely reported discovery this summer that pollen from corn
engineered to produce an insecticide could kill Monarch butterflies.

The result has been an unexpected twist: Many farmers who did not plant
the new varieties are resting easier than their progressive counterparts
because much of the world is clamoring for their ordinary harvest. Some
of these farmers are even being promised they'll be paid a premium for
their old-fashioned corn and soybeans.

The reverse economics, in which farmers who paid premium prices for
high-tech seeds are being shunned and may have to sell their harvest at
a discount, is cultivating a high level of frustration.

"I've been in this business for 30 years and this indecision about
genetically engineered seeds and what the future holds for farmers is
the worst I've seen," said Chuck Simmons, president of Bio-Plant
Research in Camp Point, Ill., a marketer of gene-altered soy and other
seeds. "This is the Y2K of agriculture."

Until recently, the debate over gene-altered food had its impact almost
entirely on Washington agencies and big-city corporate offices. Under
pressure from foreign buyers, for example, Secretary of Agriculture Dan
Glickman this summer called for an independent assessment of whether the
U.S. biotech crop approval process is adequate. The National Academy of
Sciences is preparing a report on the environmental implications of the
new crops. And the American Medical Association said last week it would
revisit and rewrite its nine-year-old unflinchingly positive policy
statement on the safety of biotech foods.

This summer, however, the issue started to affect biotechnology
companies directly. Sales abroad came to a near halt. And mimicking the
protests that last year paralyzed biotech agriculture in Europe, U.S.
activists started uprooting fields of gene-altered plants during
midnight raids on company test plots in California, Maine and Minnesota.
In the latest raid, protesters in Vermont planted placards with pictures
of Monarch butterflies in a field of engineered corn they had ruined.

But it was the announcement from Archer Daniels Midland that really
brought the debate home to the American farmer.

"Some of our customers are requesting and making their purchases based
upon the genetic origin of the crops used to manufacture their
products," the statement said. "If we are unable to satisfy their
requests, they do have alternative sources for their ingredients. We
encourage you as our supplier to segregate non-genetically enhanced
crops to preserve their identity."

The most immediate problem raised by the new announcement is how to
accomplish that segregation. More than half of the nation's soybeans and
about a third of this summer's corn were genetically engineered. But
many of the grain elevators and other storage depots that farmers bring
their harvests to don't have multiple bins or the capacity needed to
keep engineered and non-engineered varieties apart, said Randy Sexton,
of Niantic Farmers Grain Co. in Niantic, Ill.

"We do 75 percent of our volume within 30 days after harvest," Sexton
said. "We unload one truck right after another, and we're not well
suited to switch from one load to another."

Moreover, Sexton said, elevator operators would have to clean their
equipment between batches to prevent any carryover of engineered
varieties into conventional ones -- a difficult job that would cost the
company time and wages. And what if some contamination occurred? Who
would be responsible?

"We hire temporary helpers and farmers hire temporary drivers and it
would be very easy to get a truck mixed up," Sexton said. "And if you
contaminate ADM's supply, there's a potential for liability."

For farmers too, segregation is a problem. If their local elevator
decides to take only one kind of crop or the other, because of an
inability to keep them separate, farmers may have to drive many miles
farther than before to unload their harvest, again costing time and
money.

With farmers facing record low commodity prices, and grain elevator
operators also working on very narrow profit margins, both groups are
asking who will pay for the added expenses of segregation.

"Growers are not in any position to absorb that cost," said Gary
Bradley, a spokesman for the National Corn Growers Association.

In deciding what seed to buy next year farmers will rely on a
calculation of how much the engineered seeds cost relative to
conventional seeds, how much money they may save if the new seeds keep
their promise of higher yields and lower pesticide costs, and how much
they may lose next fall if engineered crops sell for less than
conventional ones.

Some agricultural economists wonder whether farmers will retreat to
conventional seeds, thus saving them the trouble of having to segregate
and possibly buying themselves a premium next fall.

Gary Goldberg, chief executive officer of the American Corn Growers
Association, said initial projections for next year's planting of
engineered corn called for an increase of about 20 percent or more over
this year's acreage. "We now think there may be a 20 to 25 percent
reduction in [engineered] acres next year because of this uncertainty
issue."

Seed suppliers say demand may not increase as it has, but they also
don't expect a big downturn."We have genetically enhanced seeds as well
as traditional varieties and we will continue to supply growers with
whatever they want and need," said Lori Fisher, a spokeswoman for
Monsanto in St. Louis. "We do expect to see a growth in bags of
genetically enhanced seeds sold. We believe farmers will continue to
adopt the technology."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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