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2-Plants: Get the facts before you plant GM seeds, US Corn Growers Association warns

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The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition
Dow Jones Newswires
March 25, 1999

U.S. Awareness Slowly Growing Of EU Biotech Crop Concerns


CHICAGO -- With Europe increasingly reluctant to import genetically modified crops, U.S. farm groups and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are taking steps to raise producers' awareness. However, many U.S. farmers don't realize the extent of Europe's
concerns, processors and producers say.
"I'm afraid there's a disconnect - farmers don't see the tie between the decisions they make and foreign markets," said Dave Erickson, a corn and soybean farmer in Altoona, Ill. Last week, the National Corn Growers Association warned farmers to "get the facts" before they plant genetically modified seeds not approved for export to the European Union. "If the biotech hybrid you plant isn't approved for export, take the necessary steps to keep harvested grain in the domestic distribution chain and out of export channels," the NCGA said on its web site. The sole variety of U.S. genetically modified soybeans - Monsanto's "Roundup Ready" - has E.U. approval. But many European consumers aren't convinced about the safety of any genetically modified products, even those approved by the E.U., the American Soybean Association acknowledged.
"There's consumer resistance in Europe," said Mike Yost, president of the ASA and a soybean farmer in Murdock, Minn. "They don't particularly care for genetically modified varieties. Most of our membership knows about this European resistance, and they have to make the choice themselves what to plant." He said the ASA hasn't made any special effort to advise farmers in their planting decisions.
U.S. farm organizations aren't the only ones focusing on the issue. Science organizations and the government also are taking a new look. There's growing concern about how the country's crops are perceived abroad, considering that close to 50% of U.S. soybeans and 35% to 40% of U.S. corn planted this year will be genetically modified varieties.

National Academy of Sciences and Glickman Form Panels
The National Academy of Sciences, a private organization in Washington, appointed a panel this week to conduct an "urgent" study of the safety, economic and social aspects of biotech crops. And last week, USDA Secretary Dan Glickman announced a new panel to review biotechnology issues. "Agricultural biotechnology presents complex questions and issues that need to be discussed in active, public dialogue," Glickman said. "This advisory committee will examine the effect of biotechnology from every conceivable angle - its creation, application, marketability, related trade and inspection implications and more." Jim Skiff, president of processing firm U.S. Soy in Mattoon, Ill., said he's noticed growing U.S. awareness of the biotech controversy in the
last few weeks. "Recently I've started to see the ASA become willing to look at the problem," said Skiff, whose plant processes only beans that aren't biotech. "Four to six months ago, they weren't willing to. There seemsto be a little more awareness among U.S. farmers." Skiff recently returned from a trip to Europe more aware than ever of resistance there to biotech grains, even those approved by the E.U.
While farm groups such as the NCGA and the ASA seem more willing to focus on overseas' resistance, the USDA and many farmers themselves seem either unwilling to deal with the problem or ignorant of it, Skiff said. "The USDA is still trying to force the product on Europeans who don't want it," Skiff said. "And (seed) products are marketed to farmers in such a way to keep all that quiet. The big seed companies aren't particularly interested in discussing the fact that genetically modified grains aren't accepted in many export markets. "There's no question that the farming community and the American public know very little about this," Skiff said.

Pioneer Hi-Bred Plans Letter To Corn Growers
Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a seed firm that currently markets three biotech corn varieties not approved in Europe, keeps customers informed about the E.U. approval status, said Kyle Whitaker, product communications manager for corn at the company's headquarters in Johnston, Iowa. "We are planning to send a letter to growers in the next few weeks to let them know we still don't have approval, and to make sure that if they sell them to an international market, it's to one that's not restricted," Whitaker said. The company's sales representatives also keep farmers informed, he said. The company hasn't updated farmers on the general resistance in Europe
to varieties already approved.
Seed companies such as Pioneer and Monsanto Co., say their biotech products pose no harm to humans. "Consumers need to know the food they eat is safe, regardless of how it is produced or developed, said Monsanto on its corporate web site. "The many companies, including Monsanto, that produce products of biotechnology undertake their own thorough review processes. ... In addition, the USDA, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have set guidelines for products of biotechnology." The web site doesn't say that some products aren't accepted by consumers abroad.
Erickson, the Illinois farmer, will seed 50% of his acres with genetically modified corn and soybeans this year. But he won't plant any corn varieties not approved for export, and he thinks groups such as the NCGA must educate other farmers about the export concerns. "Agriculture organizations are just beginning to realize that a greater amount of due diligence needs to be taken," Erickson said, referring to fledgling efforts to separate biotech corn and beans from traditional varieties. The NCGA is encouraging those efforts, and also asking farmers to consider not planting unapproved varieties, said Susan Keith, senior director of public policy for the NCGA. "We're putting it on our website, asking growers to look at the list of unapproved products," Keith said. "We say if you plan on planting this, find a domestic feed use for it or don't plant it. We're continuing to have serious discussions with seed dealers, asking them to press this issue with their customers."

E.U. Review Process Expected To Halt Corn Exports
The NCGA fears there will be no U.S. corn exports to Europe before the end of the current U.S. marketing year Aug. 31 thanks to the E.U.'s review process for new genetic varieties of the crop. Until new varieties are approved, no corn can be shipped to Europe out of fear that some unapproved seed will end up in the mix. "We don't have a good deal of hope that anything will move in Europe before the end of the marketing year," Keith said. "It's a really unworkable process." But Ella Krucoff, a representative of the European Commission in Washington, defended Europe's stringent standards of approval. "There's been a tremendous outcry," Krucoff said. "In Great Britain, stores say they don't want these products. Major market chains are boycotting genetically modified products. It's not just the institutions of the E.U., it's the public that wants us to go slowly and carefully." U.S. farmers, who in the last few years have moved from planting virtually no genetically modified grain!
 to planting a good portion of their fields with such seeds, are discovering that unaltered crops command slight premiums from some processors eager to market to Europe. "Opportunities exist for those businesses which can procure and process large quantities of segregated, non-GMO commodity soybeans at near commodity price," wrote Peter Golbitz, president of Soyatech, Inc., a market research firm in Bar Harbor, Maine.
But Europe's zero-tolerance policy for unapproved varieties is tough to meet even for firms that strive to keep such product out of the supply chain, said Skiff of U.S. Soy. "With zero tolerance, a shipload can't have even one genetically modified bean, or it has to turn back," Skiff said. "There's no way to guarantee that. Theoretically, a bird could fly over and drop one on a truck."

By Daniel Rosenberg; 1-312-750-4118;

Copyright  1999 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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