Responding to "consumers' desire to have choices," the giant grain processor Archer Daniels Midland told suppliers and farmers Wednesday to segregate gene-altered crops from traditional crops.
The announcement, coming a few weeks before harvest begins, rattled many farmers.
"A corn grower's paycheck is the harvested grain that they sell," said Lynn Jensen, a farmer from Lake Preston, S.D., and president-elect of the National Corn Growers Association. "This change in ADM's policy could mean for some growers that the 'Supermarket to the World' is now backing away from cashing that check."
In a brief statement, ADM said that biotechnology was safe and that the company supported the science, but it added: "We must produce products that our consumers will purchase."
Some customers don't want bioengineered grains. "If we are unable to satisfy their requests, they do have alternative sources for their ingredients," ADM said.
ADM will continue to accept bioengineered crops, said Carla Miller, a company spokeswoman. "We are just alerting farmers that there is consumer demand for non- genetically modified crops," she said.
ADM offers premium prices for nonbioengineered soybeans but not for standard corn, she added.
Segregating bioengineered crops from standard ones takes more time and costs more money. Some farmers fear the decision by ADM and other grain companies will affect not only this year's crop shipments but also next year's planting strategy.
"Their timing was just awful, because it puts an additional burden on producers," said Greg Guenther, a Belleville farmer and a board member of the National Corn Growers' Association.
All of Guenther's 500 soybean acres are bioengineered to tolerate Monsanto's Roundup herbicide. One hundred of his 500 corn acres are altered to fight a major pest, the European corn borer.
"Next year, many growers will have to evaluate their purchasing plans," Guenther said. "Unless something changes drastically," Guenther will not plant bioengineered seeds next year, he said.
Consumer opposition to bioengineered crops in Europe, most notably Great Britain, has rippled through the food industries and the parliaments of many countries. Opposition is mounting in Japan.
Some politicians want a total biotechnology ban; others want the labeling of foods containing ingredients derived from biotechnology.
As some grocery chains and food companies attack bioengineered products, their actions are reverberating among U.S. food processors, grain elevators and farmers. Some processors, including ADM, offer premiums for nonbioengineered crops.
Although some bioengineered crops and foods containing bioengineered ingredients are approved for import in Europe, the uproar threatens to jeopardize sales. "Just because it's approved doesn't mean it's going to be accepted," Guenther said.
Another Belleville farmer, Fred Helms, said he probably won't make a decision on bioengineered crops until November. He farms 1,800 acres, of which 70 percent contain bioengineered crops.
Growers are caught in the middle, said Helms, who also sells seed. "Last year's crop was totally unsegregated. We can't completely deal with this issue until 2001."
Corn growers worry about how they realistically can divide their crops between standard plants and GMOs, or genetically modified organisms.
"The problem will be where people have tried the technology and split their fields (between gene-altered and standard crops)," Helms said. "The grower has to check his records to see where he split the fields. If his records aren't clear, he may have to consider all of the fields as (bioengineered)."
This dilemma will affect mostly the farmers who have planted insect-fighting corn. Because corn is a hybrid, there's a risk of cross-pollination between the bioengineered and standard varieties.
Helms said segregating bioengineered and standard grains would add to his costs, but he couldn't estimate how much. "Most of our grain goes for export, but most of the elevators I talked to felt there would be a home for GMOs," he said.
ADM isn't the first grain processor to tell farmers to segregate crops. Earlier this year, A.E. Staley Manufacturing Co. said it won't accept corn that hasn't been approved by European regulators. At that time, ADM said it would accept bioengineered corn only at processing plants that serve domestic markets.
Corn and soybean trade groups have been warning members for months to make sure they know what crops have been approved by foreign regulators.
"We think non-GMOs will be a small part of the market, but we want our members to be aware of opportunities," said Bob Callanan, a spokesman for the American Soybean Association. "ADM's statement caused confusion among growers. But as long as they continue to take biotech beans, we're not too concerned."
Monsanto Co., the world leader in crop biotechnology, said ADM's decision was expected. "We don't think it's surprising because companies are trying to capitalize on niche or specialty markets," said Lori Fisher, a company spokeswoman. "We think the non-GMO market remains small in the context of the overall market."
The Illinois Corn Growers Association said biotech companies like Monsanto should assume the financial burdens of this latest battle.
"They should be willing to offset producers' costs for any additional costs of handling and shipping to nontraditional markets," the group said.
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Last Updated on 9/27/99
By Karen Lutz