Unfriendly breed


New Scientist vol 164 issue 2209 - 23 October 1999, page 64



Your article on genetically modified crops in the US (25 September, p 18), mentions the fact that the American company Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) will require suppliers to segregate GM from non-GM crops. However, it failed to point out that ADM has been offering a premium of 18 cents a bushel (about 4 per cent more than the normal price) to farmers who grow Synchrony soya beans.


Synchrony varieties were developed by DuPont, through conventional breeding, to tolerate the sulphonylurea herbicides used to control annual broadleaf weeds, but well known for leading to the development of resistant weeds and for having some residual environmental toxicity.


If non-GM soya sells well in Europe this winter, Synchrony's benefits will be very evident to ADM. The actions of anti-GM activists in Europe and the US will therefore have had the interesting effect of encouraging American farmers to use an environmentally unfriendly herbicide.



Jean-Pierre Zr˙d


University of Lausanne



Farmers in the firing line


New Scientist vol 163 issue 2205 - 25 September 1999, page 18



Take a few million suspicious European consumers, a handful of dead caterpillars and what have you got? A crisis of confidence in America's corn belt



THERE's a chill wind blowing through the American Midwest. Its farmers have rushed to embrace genetically modified (GM) crops, inspired by promises of improved profits, and safe—so they thought—in the knowledge that most Americans neither know nor care whether their food is genetically engineered. But as the GM food controversy starts to spill across the Atlantic, many are now wondering if they've made a big mistake.


For those farmers, the red-letter day was 31 August, when one of the largest food processors in the US, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) of Decatur, Illinois, announced that it will henceforth require its suppliers to segregate GM from non-engineered crops. Until ADM's announcement, America's farmers, food producers and government had been united in maintaining that segregation and labelling of GM products is unnecessary.


ADM insists it has complete faith in the safety and potential benefits of crop biotechnology. But business is business. "Some of our customers are requesting and making their purchases based on the genetic origin of the crops used to manufacture their products," it said in a statement to farmers. "If we are unable to satisfy their requests, they do have alternative sources for their ingredients."


In part, ADM's decision reflects a desire not to lose export markets, as consumers in Europe and elsewhere demand the right to choose non-GM products. But there's also a real fear that public suspicion of GM crops is spreading to the US. The trigger for that was a widely publicised lab study showing that caterpillars of the monarch butterfly can be poisoned by pollen from maize engineered to produce the "Bt toxin", a natural insecticide normally made by a soil-dwelling bacterium (New Scientist, 22 May, p 4).


Nobody yet knows whether the engineered maize poses a threat to monarchs in the field. But the butterfly is a conservation icon, and the study immediately hit a public nerve. As one entomologist commented in The Washington Post, the monarch is "the Bambi of the insect world".


While opposition to GM technology in the US is nowhere near that seen in Europe, the seeds of doubt have been sown. "It does raise the question whether other unintended consequences are in the offing," says Paul Lasley, a rural sociologist at Iowa State University in Ames who studies the attitudes of farmers towards GM crops. And since the monarch study was published, a number of GM test plots in the US have been destroyed by environmental protesters.


ADM clearly believes many of its customers want non-GM foods. And for the farmers of the Midwest, that's a worrying conclusion. If there is less demand for GM crops, they will command lower prices. And while Europe's farmers have yet to embrace engineered crops, around half of all soya and a third of all maize grown in the US is genetically modified to resist either insects or herbicide. If consumers turn against those crops, farmers fear it is they who will pay the price.


Gary Goldberg, chief executive officer of the American Corn Growers Association in Washington DC, which represents GM and non-GM maize farmers, says that farmers have boosted their production by planting GM seed. But he fears that the profits they are now enjoying may quickly be swallowed up by the costs of building separate storage areas for the segregated crops and extra paperwork—not to mention the drop in market value of those crops that he and others are predicting.


The ADM decision could also strike a blow against the current US policy of not labelling GM foods. The government and industry line has been that there is no need to label GM products because they are perfectly safe. The US has tried to impose this policy on the rest of the world, by threatening to use its influence within the World Trade Organization to get sanctions imposed on nations that label GM foods.


But faced with widespread suspicion of GM foods among their electorates, governments elsewhere have gone ahead regardless. The European Union already has regulations requiring labelling, and Australia, New Zealand and Japan are about to follow suit. Last month, the Japanese breweries Sapporo and Kirin declared they would stop using GM maize.


Now there are signs that the US government may have to rethink its policy. In July, Dan Glickman, Secretary of Agriculture, gave a speech that shocked many observers of the biotech industry. While he stressed the potential benefits of GM crops, Glickman for the first time conceded that the US might eventually be forced to accept some labelling of GM foods (New Scientist, 24 July, p 12).


Goldberg fears that the market for GM maize could collapse as early as next year, and is angry with agribiotech companies and seed suppliers for not warning farmers of the possibility. "It was the responsibility of Monsanto and DuPont and Novartis and the seed companies they work with to have foreseen this," he says. "Instead, it is falling on the shoulders of the farmers."


Others are less alarmist. Bruce Knight, vice-president for public policy at the larger and more conservative National Corn Growers Association, based in St Louis, Missouri, blames public ignorance of the technology rather than the biotech industry. "If we can make good, sound, science-based decisions, we should be able to work through this," he says.


Monsanto spokeswoman Lori Fisher doesn't believe initiatives such as ADM's will have much impact. In the long run, she says, most farmers will continue to grow GM crops because it makes economic sense. But in the meantime, GM crops are being attacked on other fronts. In December, a lawsuit will be filed against biotech giants Monsanto, DuPont and Novartis, as well as various grain processing and seed companies, accusing them of restricting farmers' freedom to choose what seed they plant. The unprecedented action—which will be filed in up to 30 countries—will be brought jointly by two groups in Washington DC, the Foundation on Economic Trends, headed by anti-biotech activist Jeremy Rifkin, and the National Family Farm Coalition, plus individual farmers across North America, Latin America, Asia and Europe.


Michael Hausfeld, one of the lawyers working on the lawsuit, argues that companies have gained too much control of farming practices through their dominance of the market and ownership of patents on GM seed. "When you get to have enough power that what you do affects the entire market, rather than a subset of the market, then that's restraint of trade," he claims.


In February, another lawsuit was filed against the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), seeking to overturn existing approvals of crops that produce the Bt toxin, on the grounds that their environmental safety hadn't been adequately tested (New Scientist, 27 February, p 6).


Both lawsuits are likely to rumble on for years, causing further uncertainty in the corn belt. "I think farmers are unfortunately caught in the middle," says Joseph Mendelson, a lawyer with the International Center for Technology Assessment, a pressure group in Washington DC that is backing the action against the EPA.


But as unease over GM crops in the US begins to break into the mainstream, the legal wrangling may be the least of the farmers' worries: they still don't know what prices they will get for this year's GM crops. "We're going into the harvest with a great deal of uncertainty," says Knight.



 Acreage of GM crops planted in the US







Kurt Kleiner