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Wednesday, July 14, 1999 Published at 13:28 GMT 14:28 UK


US farmers fear GM crop fallout

US farmers are worried about consumer opposition to GM crops

BBC Newsnight's science correspondent Susan Watts reports on how American farmers feel they have been let down by GM agribusiness.

In the rural idyll of America's agricultural states farmers are getting to know the genetically altered crops they have been told will help them make the most of their land. Their fields are providing the evidence that will tell the world if the ambitious claims for biotechnology in agriculture are coming true.

Newsnight's Susan Watts in the Mid-West
The whole point of the crops is that they are supposed to help farmers farm more cheaply. Suddenly they are under the spotlight. Consumers outside the US have turned against GM food. The export market is disappearing fast - US corn sales to Europe shrank from 70 million bushels in 1997 to just 3 million last year.

Mood change in the Mid-West

[ image: Prof Heffernan:
Prof Heffernan: "The farmers are really quite angry"
Professor Bill Heffernan of the University of Missouri has spent 30 years tracking rural change across the states. He says people fear GM crops could end up costing them more not less.

"Six months ago we thought that basically these products were going to be accepted in the market - nobody thought otherwise and in fact it was just assumed because nobody was challenging it.

"Now, especially because number one what's happening in Europe and Japan and other major consumer nations that may refuse these products, that's really gotten the farmers attention.

"The farmers are really quite angry about it and they're quite confused about it and many farmers just wish the whole thing would go away, we'd go back the way it was a year ago and forget about all these products."

'Taking a second look'

[ image: Doug Doughty:
Doug Doughty: "Maybe this technology wasn't researched as well as it could have been."
Doug Doughty is a GM seed dealer . His neighbour, Bill Christison is president of the National Family Farm Coalition, a group that has taken a stand against GM crops. Yet their apparently opposing views seem now to be converging.

Mr Christison says: "I think in the past year especially that some farmers are taking a second look at the increased production costs and the increased yield that was promised them."

Mr Doughty says: " US farmers embrace technology very quickly ,we want the newest thing on the market, the latest thing..i think we're just finding out that maybe this technology wasn't researched as well as it could have been.

"The Europeans were right to go slow on this. We were fed a lot of propoganda that the Europeans were just being difficult, to be against what the US were doing - but I think we're finding out that they're our customers and if they want something we should be able to deliver that."

Farming revolution under scrutiny

[ image: Some farmers say they are using the same amount of pesticide on GM crops as they did on their old crops]
Some farmers say they are using the same amount of pesticide on GM crops as they did on their old crops
One of the most common modified crops is soybeans that can tolerate herbicide - about one third of the soya bean crop in the mid west is genetically modified. The idea is that farmers need not till their land and can control weeds with fewer sprays. The other is pest resistant, or "Bt" corn, with extra genes that produce a toxin to fend off pests.

The message from biotechnology developers has been consistently positive. For the past few decades field tests have been conducted on a wide variety of products that may produce a better answer, may herald the latest revolution in farming technology, products of agricultural biotechnology.

Yet on one of the key claims for these crops - lower herbicide use - local farmers experience doesn't quite match the developers expectations. For example on Monsanto's Round Up-Ready soybeans, the aim was only to spray once. But according to Prof Heffernan many farmers still spray their crops twice.

"You just have too many late weeds coming on and so in that case you spray just as much as you would with any of the other herbicides we've been using in the last few years," he says.

GM yields figures 'confusing'

[ image: Farmers have found there are large yeild variations on GM crops]
Farmers have found there are large yeild variations on GM crops
Last week, the US department of agriculture released the most comprehensive analysis of data on GM crops in the US. As expected, these show a dramatic uptake among farmers - a six-fold increase to 50 million acres in just two years.

Biotechnology companies sold their crops on the promise of fewer chemical treatments and higher yields. The official figures show that overall, the picture is confusing, with regional variations that are so large it is almost impossible to draw general conclusions.

This puts big question marks over the message from biotech companies that GM crops mean automatic advantages for farmers.

On chemical treatments, for 1997, pesticide treatment was about the same for pest resistant and conventional corn. For herbicide-tolerant soybeans, herbicide use went down in some states, but up in others.

On yields pest resistant corn showed big differences in yield advantage - five times higher in the Prairie states than in the main crop-growing states. For herbicide-tolerant soybeans, yields in the Prairie states were about 25% higher, yet in the Eastern states they were down by about 8%.

Yield variations aside, there's no room for argument over the harsh economic reality of selling GM crops into a reluctant market - and some GM farmers are having second thoughts.

Prof Heffernan says: "All of a sudden we're finding some firms are now saying they'll pay 15 to 16 cents a bushel more for Non GMOs."

The result has been that some farmers have tried to return their GM seed for more traditional seed.

Farmers fear cross-contamination

[ image: Bill Christison predicts farmers taking out lawsuits against their neighbours]
Bill Christison predicts farmers taking out lawsuits against their neighbours
Just as it becomes plain that GM developers were taken by surprise by the strength of reaction against their crops in Europe - another problem is emerging, closer to home, that they also failed to anticipate.

Bill Christison is a conventional farmer selling into a mainstream market, yet he feels GM crops could now threaten his livelihood.

"I have a fear that even though I do not plant GMO crops my corn will be contaminated and therefore not marketable around the world. I think this is an issue that is facing a number of farmers in this country.

"I think that there is no doubt that there will be a rash of lawsuits - farmer against farmer if you will - to determine how they can control this Bt hybrid and keep it on their side of the fence," he says.

Organic farmers angered

Cross contamination is just one practical problem biotechnology companies apparently didn't foresee once farmers started actually growing GM crops. The issue is most acute for organic farmers.

There have already been cases of Europe rejecting American organic produce because it was found to contain GM material although it was supposed to be GM free.

Organic farmer Klaus Martens says: "I'm resentful. I don't know why when someone else is contaminating my land, I should have to bear the financial burden and make all the adjustments.

"I certainly hope that American farmers will wake up and reject these products. It's definitely hurting American farmers. They cost us the European market, they have trapped our domestic markets for our grains and it's very obvious that they're not doing us any good."

GM crops have 'really backfired'

The evidence is mounting that conventional farmers are now are having doubts.

GM seed dealer Doughty says: "There is a lot of feeling that Monsanto and some of the other companies reallly let us down in Europe, tried to stuff if down Europeans throats, and say here it is, you will have to accept it, without going to the countries, to their scientists and researchers and proving it first that everything was OK and it's really backfired on them."

Mr Christenson says: " We are going to supply the land the machinery, the labour, and we are going to get a pittance for our efforts because of GMO seed and this does not set well with myself nor with a great number of farmer."

Where farmers may once have seen Monsanto and others as pioneering saviours, now, as they watch biotech seed prices creep slowly upwards, their mood is changing from a warm welcome to simmering resentment.

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