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12 Δεκ 2012 (πριν από 4 χρόνια και 11 μήνες)

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Second Thoughts


Author:

Clarke, Paul


Publication:
E: The Environmental Magazine (Nov/Dec2001)


Farmers Are Deeply Wary About Genetically Engineered Crops

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 engineer
ed to resist pests or to tolerate sprayings of weed
-
killers
such as Monsanto's "Roundup." GMOs had recently won government approval, arid they seemed
poised to revolutionize agriculture.


Then the problems started. Consumers, citing safety concerns, balke
d 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 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," says 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 g
rowing 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," says Dan McGuire, policy committee chairman for the
American Corn Growers Association (ACG
A). A variety of altered corn unapproved for use in human
food, StarLink made up less than one 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 T
aco 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 afterwards, and some estimates even show a drop in this years acreage.


Export markets continue to suffer in StarLink's aftermath. McGuire says that in the 1996 marketing
year,
the United States exported nearly three million tons of corn to Europe; this year, 4 only about
2,500 tons were shipped in the same period. "The point is, Europe is still importing mil lions of tons of
corn, just not from us," says McGuire. With Asian mark
ets 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 growi
ng a certain type of grain and you grow it anyway, then that's not a very market
-
oriented
direction" says 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" says Bill Christison, a soybean and corn farmer from Chillicothe, Missouri.
As president of the National Family Farm Coalit
ion (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
"sup
erweeds." He is also bothered by the consolidation of seed and chemical companies into fewer and
larger corporations. Though the altered crops offer convenience, he says, in the long run they'll do
more harm than good. "We're losing not only our internatio
nal markets, but the confidence of U.S.
consumers."


Facing these problems, many farmers are fighting back. In 1999, than 25 farm groups, including the
NFFC and the ACGA, gathered in Virginia to develop a "Farmers' Declaration on Genetic Engineering in
Ag
riculture. Calling for sustainable production, the declaration's backers 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 began hiring support 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" says Bill Wenzel, the campaign's national director. Earlier this year, th
e 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 enco
uraged 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 says.


Even previous biotec
h 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 forei
gn 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," says Leake, a backer of North Dakota's
legislation. Drawing support from fa
rm 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 d
on't see our
customers backing down one bit" he says. 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," says Leake. "For Monsanto, it's just an experiment." CONTACT: National Family Farm
Coalition, (202)543
-
5675, www.nffc.net.





By Paul Clarke