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Gene Engineers Whine About
Consumer Opposition

"Why should they endorse this technology when the
activists will come right out and target their crop? .
.. . This is being driven by the fear that Greenpeace
will show up and (picket) at Safeway (groceries)"

Altered crops have farmers walking a tightrope of
acceptance
By Rachel Melcer
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
09/24/2002 10:08 PM

American farmers improved their bottom lines by more
than $1.4 billion last year by using genetically
modified canola, soybeans, field corn and cotton - but
they passed up potential savings of $158 million more
because they fear angering consumers, according to a
leading researcher.

The vast majority of U.S. farmers are drawing the line
at growing biotech crops that land on consumers'
plates, said Leonard Gianessi, program director for the
Washington-based nonprofit National Center for Food &
Agricultural Policy. Along with retail stores and
industry associations, farmers don't want to risk
drawing the wrath of environmental groups or consumers
who believe genetically modified foods are a danger, he
said.

"Why should they endorse this technology when the
activists will come right out and target their crop? .
.. . This is being driven by the fear that Greenpeace
will show up and (picket) at Safeway (groceries),"
Gianessi said Tuesday while presenting a new NCFAP
study to researchers at the Donald Danforth Plant
Science Center in Creve Coeur.

The study of potential benefits of genetically
modified, or GM, crops in the United States showed that
farmers are saving money, reducing pesticide use by
more than 45 million pounds a year and increasing
yields by using eight GM varieties.

Four others - potato, sugarbeet and two types of sweet
corn - have won regulatory approval, but they are being
ignored by growers, the study notes. They could add
$158 million to farmers' bottom lines and could do away
with the annual application of 582,800 pounds of
pesticides.

The lost benefits are a drop in the bucket compared
with farmers' annual income of $50 billion. But dozens
of new GM food seeds are being developed, and
researchers worry that they, too, will be left
unplanted.

The NCFAP studied two dozen crops that soon could hit
the market and found a potential annual economic
benefit to farmers of $530 million. Their use also
could eliminate nearly 56 million pounds of pesticides.
And they could save entire crops that are threatened by
diseases and insect infestations, such as Michigan and
Missouri apples, Pennsylvania plums and Washington
raspberries.

"Genetics is a stronger tool, a more sustainable tool"
than pesticides and agricultural techniques being used,
said Roger Beachy, president of the Danforth center.

Yet he worries that if GM crops are left to wither on
the vine, researchers will lose interest in developing
them.

"Plant scientists are excited by the opportunity to be
relevant to public health and to society," he said.
Without that, they could shift to other types of
research.

Scientists also struggle because they lack the
resources to commercialize GM foods, a process that can
cost $1 million to $50 million for each new seed type.

Big-cash GM crops are promoted by companies that
produce them, such as Creve Coeur-based Monsanto Co.
But growers and industry associations must lend a hand
to get smaller, more specialized crops off the ground,
Beachy said.

"You have the corporations only doing those things that
have large market value," he said. "If (scientists) are
really going to see the fruits of our labor, we need to
go on and do it independent of them."

Part of the problem in winning over growers' groups is
that the American public doesn't understand modern
agriculture, Gianessi said. Most people who worry about
GM crops don't realize that many foods they eat are
treated with pesticides and other chemicals.

GM foods are designed with the goal of eliminating
practices such as applying antibiotics to apples to
ward off a crop-killing disease or spraying pesticides
a dozen times on each sweet-corn crop to kill armyworms
and earworms.

Often, growers don't want to promote GM foods as an
alternative because they don't want to make the public
aware of such practices, Gianessi said.

Environmentalists and GM food scientists should be
natural allies, Beachy said.

"We're striving for the same result: reduced impact of
agriculture on the land and reduced use of chemicals,"
he said. "What is it going to take to get the consumer
comfortable that the science is being done in their
best interest? I think (these crops) will come into use
slowly, but it won't happen until there is acceptance
by the consumer."

Reporter Rachel Melcer:

E-mail: rmelcer@post-dispatch.com

Phone: 314-340-8394


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