Europeans’ fear puts Midwest farmers in limbo

Published February 1, 2000

Midwest farmers face tough, possibly costly, decisions as debate rages in Europe over whether to treat genetically modified (GM) crops differently from others in the European food marketplace.

At issue are corn and soybean seeds that have been altered to be resistant to herbicides and, in some cases, to such crop-endangering insects as the corn borer. The GM seeds have come under attack in Europe and Asia, and consumers in the U.S. are starting to pay attention, too.

A group of Iowa, Indiana, and French farmers has sued St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. for allegedly selling genetically altered seeds without first ensuring they were safe for consumers and the environment. The lawsuit, filed December 14 in federal court in Washington, aims to stop Monsanto from adding genes to give soybeans, corn, and other plants resistance to pests. Monsanto called the suit unfounded, saying its products are safe.

Why Europe matters to U.S. farmers

U.S. farmers export much of their annual crop harvests to Europe. The European Union (EU) is developing a food labeling law that would require the prominent labeling of foods containing any GM elements. But U.S. farmers and food processors do not generally separate or segregate their crops based on whether they were grown from GM or non-GM seeds. Such segregating would require extensive testing and investments in equipment, not to mention the time to clean out wagons, storage bins, and trucks after each delivery. While Environment News is unaware of any research aimed at determining the cost of separating crops, one retailer in Britain is currently charging a 20 percent premium for beef it claims is fed only non-GM feed.

“There is a lot of anxiety, confusion, and consternation out there,” according to Dennis Vercler, communications director for Illinois Farm Bureau. “None of the information is very helpful and there are a lot of unknowns. A lot of farmers are hedging their bets and double-booking seed orders. The proof will be in the fall of 2000, when crops go to market.”

Darl Baumgardner, a corn and soybean grower near Normal, Illinois, added, “Planting GMO seed is a win/win situation for the farmer and the environment, but I have to take a second look. I don’t know yet what to plant. It depends on what happens in the next 60 to 90 days.”

Baumgardner continued, “My concern is that much of the discussion [about genetically modified foods] is being manipulated by a small number of people. There is a level of fear and distrust created by people making outlandish statements about bio-technology and no one verifying the claims. The discussion needs to be in the open so biotechnology can be explained and the consumer can decide. The consumer rules. Providing non-GMO foods can be done if the consumer is willing to bear the cost of segregating. There’s no question it’ll cost more–at least in the short run. How much depends on a lot of things.”

Further complicating efforts to label foods GM or non-GM is scientists’ poor understanding of how corn pollen travels. For example, if a farmer is raising non-GM corn, and his neighbor is raising Bt corn (resistant to the corn-borer), it is virtually impossible for the first farmer to “guarantee” his corn is 100 percent non-GM. Yet some farmers are being asked to certify in writing that their corn or soybeans are not genetically modified when they sell the grain to elevators.

Neil Harl, professor of agriculture and economics at Iowa State University, advises farmers to “be very careful about what they sign or even what oral comments are made” concerning the crops they deliver to an elevator. Harl has worked with the office of the Iowa Attorney General and Iowa State University to develop a “proposed uniform certification” for farmers to use that simply states the farmer used “ordinary care to clean his harvesting equipment, on-farm storage facilities, and the transportation delivery vehicles,” without claiming the entire delivery is free of GM seed.

Not just safe, but better?

Herbicide-resistant soybeans (known commonly as “Roundup Ready” beans because they are resistant to the herbicide Roundup, sold by Monsanto) now make up over 50 percent of the soybean acres grown in the U.S., according to Monsanto. Use of this soybean allows the farmer to use Roundup herbicide on the fields to kill weeds without harming the soybean plants.

According to studies conducted by Monsanto, use of the Roundup Ready beans gives greater yields and is environmentally friendly, allowing the farmer to use less and shorter-lived herbicides, reducing erosion and water runoff of the herbicide. Monsanto also says the greater yields offered by Roundup Ready beans mean less diesel fuel consumption per acre.

“Soybeans are not grown in Europe on any significant scale,” said David Green, president of Greenhouse Communications, a European who has studied GM regulations in Europe and is a consultant to the American Soybean Association. “Consumers [in Europe] are unfamiliar with the crop and were even more unaware that biotechnology soybeans were on the way to their supermarket shelves.”

According to Green, the use or non-use of genetically altered crops has become a political issue in Britain, with Prime Minister Tony Blair, “putting his personal authority behind the safety and benefits of GMOs.” However, he added, “the Conservative party, the pro-farming party, the party of Mrs. Thatcher, which had happily approved the GMO soybeans in the early 1990s, now saw a wonderful political opportunity to attack. And attack they did.”

Although Roundup Ready soybeans were approved for import into Europe under the Directive 90/220 in 1996, recently pressure was brought on the EU to consider food labeling of GMO foods under the EU’s Novel Foods Act.

Regulation 1139 of the Act, which covers Roundup Ready soybeans and Bt corn, established no minimum level of GM content for labeling. In effect, if a product contains any trace of GM content, it must be labeled. This “zero tolerance” goal is deemed by some in the industry as either unattainable or too costly, and a 1 percent threshold is under consideration. A decision is expected by April 2000–well after Midwest farmers have made their seed commitments for the year.