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Thursday, August 19, 1999 Published at 09:53 GMT 10:53 UK

World: Americas

US farmers in GM revolution

Soon 90% of US food could contain GM ingredients

By Gavin Hewitt in Illinois

US agriculture is in the middle of a revolution.

Food under the microscope
Last year, American farmers planted 50 million acres of genetically-modified (GM) crops - including corn, soybeans, cotton and potatoes.

Four years ago, the figure was zero.

'Safe for me, safe for my family'

Don Wilrett's family has farmed in Illinois for five generations.

Two-thirds of his corn is genetically-modified.

For him, as for other American farmers trying to make a living with the erosion of crop prices, the incentive is simple: With GM crops, costs are lower and yields higher.

[ image: GM crops has cut pesticide use]
GM crops has cut pesticide use
Mr Wilrett simply sees no reason to fear the food he is growing.

"I'm growing it on my own land, within 300 feet of where I live. I feed it to my own animals, and I would be willing to go out, take an ear and roast it, and eat it myself or feed it to my family," he said.

Harold Miller has been dusting crops for nearly 30 years in the state of Illinois, in the American Corn Belt.

Over the decades, Mr Miller's planes and others like his have sprayed tons of pest-destroying chemicals on the state's flat lands.

Now, Harold Miller has less work because so much of the newly-planted corn has been genetically-modified to contain its own pesticide.

"Over the entire Corn Belt, I think there probably is somewhere between 25% to 50% of the products, one way or another, are genetically engineered," Mr Miller said. "That, of course, has reduced our business."

'Don't know, don't care'

60% of America's processed foods - ranging from bread to yoghurt - already contain GM ingredients.

[ image: Crop owner Don Wilrett is not concerned by GM foods]
Crop owner Don Wilrett is not concerned by GM foods
The products are not labelled, so Americans do not know exactly what they are eating.

But - unlike consumers in Europe - most Americans do not care.

"I don't think about it. It's not a concern. I think most of the food is pretty safe," said one woman shopping at a local grocery.

Another shopper did not know what genetically modified food was: "You'll have to explain it to me," she said.

Part of the laissez-faire attitude of American consumers towards GM foods may be because they have not had their faith shaken by such problems as BSE, the so-called "mad cow disease".

US and Europe far apart

If the current rapid increase in the planting of GM crops continues, 85 to 90% of US processed food will contain some element of genetic modification, according to Val Giddings, the Vice President for food and agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organisation.

[ image: Don Wilrett says he would eat the corn himself]
Don Wilrett says he would eat the corn himself
Analysts say that means anyone importing US food will almost certainly receive products containing GM elements.

Most of Europe still highly suspicious of GM food, while Americans remain quick to embrace change in the name of progress.

So when it comes to what we eat, America and Europe are travelling in different directions.

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