American farmers have, according to this story, warmly embraced biotechnology, but resistance abroad and regulation at home are threatening to turn the affair sour.
The story says that as the consumer movement against genetically modified (GM) foods spreads across Europe, Japan and elsewhere, maize (corn) and soybean farmers preparing for harvest in the United States face a shrinking export market, together with growing demands from food processors that they separate GM from conventional grains. The story notes that on 1 September, food-processing giant Archer Daniels Midland asked suppliers to segregate fields, grain bins and storage elevators.
Consolidated Grain and Barge, another major processor, said it would pay a premium for unmodified crops. And several US food companies, including Gerber, H. J. Heinz and Iams, a pet-food maker, have started to reject GM varieties.
Some maize and soybean farmers who planted GM seed are, the story adds, even talking about class-action lawsuits against seed and chemical companies for misrepresenting their products as benign. Now that there is a market for unmodified grain, an important farmers' concern is 'contamination' of such grain by GM crops. Modified and unmodified seeds can mix in harvesting equipment, storage elevators and processing machinery.
For maize and canola, cross-fertilization by wind-borne pollen is a risk. Growers say they are starved for data on the need for buffer zones, and wonder aloud who would be liable if GM pollen transformed unmodified crops. Organic farmers, who feel especially threatened, say that even the identity of seed stock is uncertain.
Producer groups worry about the cost of tests to ensure that crops are not contaminated. The American Soybean Association was cited as releasing a statement saying that consumers and processors ought to pay a premium to cover the extra expense of certifying unmodified crops. (GM plants make up about half of this year's soybean crop.) Organic growers wonder if such testing is even possible, especially in processed foods such as soybean oil or lecithin, as transgenic crops become ubiquitous in the food supply.
The story also notes that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is concluding a series of workshops on managing fields to protect against resistance to Bt toxins in maize and cotton. In its position paper, the agency praises GM crops for helping to boost production and cut chemical use. The EPA cites figures from the biotechnology company Monsanto that cotton insecticide use dropped by 3.6 million litres per year after Bt cotton entered the market.
Farmers use about 300,000 kg less of insecticide because of GM maize, the agency says. In addition, herbicide-resistant varieties have improved erosion control by enabling farmers to avoid tilling.
But the Organic Trade Association may fight the renewal of these plants' status as approved pesticides, because besides potentially eliminating a safe insecticide, these crops pose unknown risks to the environment: "It's trading one bad solution for another". Expanding organic acreage would be a better idea, she says, especially because organic maize is easy to grow.
Steve Johnson, EPA associate deputy assistant administrator for the Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances was cited as saying the EPA is evaluating the emerging data on harm to non-target insects such as the monarch butterfly, adding, "We really believe the science is raising some important concerns."
The EPA may expand requirements for insect refuges and untreated buffer zones. In addition, companies requesting registration renewal may be asked to provide data on ecological questions such as the effect of Bt pollen on monarch habitat, the dose- response relationship for different butterfly life stages, and the relationship between monarch colonization of milkweed and the distance to a maize field. "To the extent that we need to be more aggressive as an agency, we will be," Johnson promises.
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Last Updated on 9/16/99
By Karen Lutz