WASHINGTON (AP) -- Two months ago, Minnesota farmer Mark Ufer was ready to swear off genetically engineered crops. He figured the growing controversy over biotech food would make it easier to sell conventional corn and soybeans next year.
Now that it is time to order next year's seed, he has changed his mind.
``The genetically enhanced movement is so widespread that I don't think a person can realistically not be a part of it,'' he said.
Farmers have been switching in droves to genetically engineered corn and soybeans over the past three years. There is growing evidence that they plan to stick with the crops next year despite backlashes against biotechnology in Europe and Japan and producers' lingering worries about the industry's future.
Two-thirds of the corn seed and three-quarters of the soybean seed that farmers have ordered from Novartis Seeds Inc. for next year are genetically engineered, a slight increase over this time a year ago.
Novartis is among the nation's largest seed suppliers. About 70 percent of the corn seed and half the soybean seed that Novartis expects to sell for the 2000 crop had been ordered as of Dec. 1.
The demand for biotech seed ``is as strong as it's been at any time since we introduced it,'' said Jack Bernens, the company's vice president of marketing.
The government estimates that 57 percent of the soybeans that farmers grew this year contains a gene that allows it to tolerate use of the popular Roundup weed killer. Another 30 percent of the corn grown this year was biotech, engineered to make it toxic to the European corn borer, a chronic problem for farmers.
In a Nov. 22 letter to investment analysts, Monsanto Co. acknowledged that there was more indecision than usual among farmers as to their planting intentions for next year. But Monsanto's market research indicates the demand for biotech seed will be ``on par with the 1999 season,'' the letter said.
Monsanto has a lot at stake. Along with holding patents in the technology, Monsanto sells seed though its Asgrow and DeKalb subsidiaries, and also makes the Roundup herbicide.
The American Soybean Association, which is holding a series of seminars in the Midwest to sound out farmers and address their misgivings about biotechnology, also is not expecting any wholesale shift to conventional varieties.
``We have no reason to believe that the adoption of the technology will not continue,'' spokesman Bob Callanan said. ``We still think there's strong interest from the growers. ... The growers like and have embraced the technology.''
A series of developments caught farmers by surprise this summer and early this fall, which led to fears they would have trouble selling their biotech crops. That in turn would make it difficult to recover the seeds' higher costs.
Amid the growing controversy over biotech crops, baby-food makers Gerber and Heinz announced they no longer would use genetically modified ingredients.
A major U.S. grain processor announced plans to pay a premium for conventional crops, while a second company advised its suppliers to start separately storing conventional and biotech grain.
Analysts feared the moves would lead to price cuts on biotech grain, if not this fall then next year, and a shortage of conventional seed varieties next spring.
As it turns out, relatively few grain elevators have been requiring farmers to separate their crops, surveys have found. The feared price cuts for biotech grain have not materialized, either.
One major grain buyer, Cargill Inc., is even paying an extra 5 cents a bushel for soybeans that contain low amounts of dust and other foreign matter, which typically means the biotech variety, said Callanan.
Ufer, who farms near Truman, Minn., sells much of his corn to an ethanol cooperative, whose board voted not to accept genetically modified crops as of next year. The problem for the cooperative is that it sells a byproduct, distillers' grain, for export as livestock feed.
The cooperative since has reversed its decision. That has eased some of Ufer's concerns.
But he, like other farmers, still has a variety of concerns they are weighing as they order seed. The genetically engineered corn, for example, will cost farmers money if infestations of the European corn borer are low. Also, the herbicide-tolerant soybeans sometimes yield less than conventional varieties, farmers have found.
Producers face ``real tough management calls that are going to be made on a farm-to-farm basis and in some cases on a field-by-field basis,'' said Ross Korves, an economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation.
The American Corn Growers Association, the smaller of two organizations representing corn farmers and a critic of biotechnology, predicts a 20 percent to 25 percent reduction in genetically engineered corn next year.
``If the consumer unrest continues, we think that this issue is not going away,'' said Gary Goldberg, a spokesman for the group.
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Last Updated on 12/6/99
By Karen Lutz