US farmers rethink future of bio-tech crops

by Danielle Knight

Washington, 27 Sep. 99(IPS) -- US farmers, faced with lower yields and mounting opposition to their genetically- modified crops are having to rethink whether to continue planting the expensive genetically-altered seeds.

About half of the soybean and corn planted in the United States are from genetically-modified seeds and one-third of the crops are exported - mainly to Japan and Europe. The food companies there, however, are shunning US produce because of consumer concern over health and the environment.

In response, large US agribusiness traders and exporters, such as Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), are asking farmers to separate traditional crops from the genetically-modified varieties.

Prices for the engineered crops have slumped and the stocks of bio-tech firms are stagnating or declining. Thus a two-tiered crop production system is developing as farmers, grain elevator operators, food manufacturers and distributors take steps to segregate the different crops.

Farmers paid premiums for seeds that biotechnology companies, such as Monsanto and Novartis, promised would have higher yields but this seldom occurred and, in many cases, even led to lower yields than conventional crops.

"In farm country next year there is going to be great resistance to buying genetically-modified seeds," says Bill Christison, president of the National Family Farm Association.

"Genetically-modified organisms cost more and yield less, regardless of all the slick advertising coming out of Monsanto and Novartis," says Christison, a farmer in Missouri who has steered clear of any seeds that have been tinkered with by scientists.

Christison told IPS he just received a form letter from Monsanto telling him not to worry about the consumers in other nations and that the company will find a market for genetically modified organisms.

"They are still trying to get us to buy more of their seeds," he said.

But because of the lack of export demand for the new-style farm product, the American Corn Growers Association which represents mostly small-scale family farms, told its members that they should consider planting only conventional seeds next spring.

Even if farmers think genetically-modified crops are perfectly safe, they must consider market demands, says Gary Goldberg, chief executive officer of the association.

"There are too many uncertainties in agriculture...we can't handle the additional uncertainty of not knowing if our crops will be marketable to foreign and domestic buyers," he says.

Some agricultural groups, including the National Corn Growers Association, which has a financial partnership with Monsanto and other agricultural companies, has stopped short of telling farmers to shun the new technology.

US farmers may decide on their own to opt out of planting the modified seeds in the Spring of 2000, since they have borne the cost of separating and testing genetically-modified crops.

"The segregation of crops puts the burden on the farmer," says Dan McQuire, a board member of the American Corn Growers Association, who believes Congress should make the seed firms accountable for the farmers' financial losses.

Despite the glossy advertisements put out by Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-bred, farmers say the biologically engineered seeds did not perform as well as conventional varieties.

Charles Benbrook - an agricultural economist and former executive director of the Board on Agriculture at the National Academy of Science - says that after analysing thousands of comparative soybean yield trials, there was an average six to seven percent decrease in yield, or "yield lag" for fields planted with Monsanto's "Round-up Ready" genetically-modified seeds.

This probably cost farmers between three and five bushels per acre, "From a historical point of view, this has been the biggest step backwards in soybean production," he says.

"When you combine the higher cost for Round-up Ready seed with losing these bushels per acre, this has really become a hidden tax on the income of the American farmer."

Since genetically-modified seeds hit the market, the terrain of the seed industry has changed dramatically.

Chemical companies that bet on the success of the altered seeds invested in the new technology, designing it to work with their pesticides, and merged with large seed corporations hoping to corner the market.

Benbrook says that more than 10 companies now control about 30 percent of the 23 billion dollar annual world commercial seed trade; and five of these companies - Monsanto, Novartis, AstraZeneca, Aventis and DuPont - control almost all genetically modified seed.

"The fundamental issue here is who controls our food systems," adds McQuire.

The Washington-based Foundation on Economic Trends and the National Family Farm Coalition - joined by farmers in more than a dozen countries - are expected to file a multi-billion dollar anti-trust lawsuit against the big agricultural and biotechnology firms.

Parties to the lawsuit particularly are concerned that the companies are leasing rather than selling seeds to farmers. These corporations which sell seed worldwide then claim patent rights on seed varieties so that farmers are prohibited from saving seeds for the following harvest.

Many farmers in developing countries depend on the practice of saving seed and fear that because of the mergers they will be forced to buy genetically altered seeds year after year.

"In a few years' time, no farmer in the world is ever going to own seeds again - if that's not a case for antitrust litigation, I don't know what is," says Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Washington-based Foundation on Economic Trends.

The above article by the Inter Press Service appeared in the South- North Development Monitor (SUNS) .