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The Seeds of Discontent
By Mary Losure
October 18, 1999
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Seed companies first introduced genetically-engineered corn and soybeans to the Midwest just four years ago. Farmers welcomed the new technology. This year, around half the soybean crop and a third of the corn crop came from genetically-altered seed. But now, some Midwest farmers are having second thoughts about the high-tech seed, and biotechnology companies are scrambling to contain a backlash in what was once a stronghold of bioengineering.

ONCE, IT SEEMED introducing genetically engineered crops into the Midwest would go off without a hitch. Farmers were eager to plant corn with a bacteria gene that gave the plant built-in resistance to one of its biggest threats: the European corn borer.

They liked the idea of so-called Roundup-ready soybeans that didn't need weeding. The soybeans have a gene that allows them to survive spraying with Roundup, a popular all-purpose herbicide that kills old fashioned soybeans.

But now, farmers are starting to worry about a rising backlash in overseas markets against high tech crops. This fall, grain-marketing giant Archer Daniels Midland announced it would require genetically-modified crops to be sold separately from traditional ones.

Roger Dale is president of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association. He says soybean farmers are struggling to figure out what to do.
Dale: There's a lot of concern out there. It's too early to tell. A certain amount of people don't know if they want to plant Roundup-ready beans next year or not, just from the standpoint that we might have a hard time selling them.
The seed market is now controlled by a few huge companies including Monsanto, Dupont, and the Swiss-based firm Novartis, which is the world's largest agribusiness firm. Those companies assured farmers there would be no problem with genetically modified, or so called GMO, crops. Dale says now, some farmers feel betrayed.

Novartis has even announced its own subsidiary, Gerber, will no longer use GMO crops in its baby foods.
Dale: That's the part that's making farmers kind of irritated too. They're a big company and they supply the seed, and now they don't want to use it. That puts the farmer between a rock and a hard place.
Half the soybean market goes for exports, so soybean farmers are watching anxiously to see how far the backlash against GMO crops goes. The world's largest grain marketer, Minnetonka-based Cargill, is showing signs of caution about genetically engineered crops.

The company entered into a joint venture with Monsanto earlier this year to develop genetically-modified grain. Under the agreement Monsanto would handle the science, Cargill the marketing.

But Cargill CEO Warren Staley seemed to distance his company from the technology last month. He answered questions about genetic engineering at a press conference at the University of Minnesota.
Staley: What we've made very clear to customers around the world is, we will do what customers want us to do. We are a supplier, and for instance Japan, they want something like 95 percent GMO-free cargoes of grain, so we are scurrying around looking and seeing, can we in a very documented fashion, put on a vessel and ship to Japan with a certificate that this meets their requirements
Cargill declined to be interviewed for this story.

Midwest farmers still have many months to decide what kind of crops to plant next spring, but they are showing increasing signs of unease.

Last month, the American Corn Growers Association issued a statement forecasting a dramatic drop next year in genetically-engineered corn planting. The group cautioned its members to order traditional seed as soon as possible to make sure they can get it for next spring. The group also called for Congressional hearings to determine how much traditional seed is available.

William Niebur is corn-research director for Iowa-based Pioneer Hybrid International. It's the world's largest seed company and has recently been acquired by Dupont. Neibur says he does not expect a shortage.
Niebur: There are challenges for all of us in terms of being able to predict what will happen politically, economically. We're being very cautious in terms of being able to provide our customer base with a choice.
Seed companies have already grown much of the seed for next year's planting season. The new seed supply is even more heavily weighted toward GMO varieties than this year's. Neiber says Pioneer believes in the new technology and does not expect Midwest farmers to retreat from it.

But Pioneer, its parent company Dupont, and others in the industry are worried. They are stepping up efforts to promote consumer acceptance of genetically-engineered products. Ed Shonsey is president of Novartis Seeds in Golden Valley, a division of the Swiss multinational Novartis.
Shonsey: We're going to be sharing the story on television, in newspapers on the radio, certainly sharing it in forums. If that's what it takes to preserve this science.
Opponents of genetic engineering are also gearing up.

Recently, activists from Greenpeace and other organizations from around the world met in upstate New York. They're coordinating what the Wall Street Journal calls "the first all out assault on the U.S. biotech industry." Such campaigns have been highly successful in Europe.

In Europe and India, biotech opponents have destroyed genetically-engineered crops. Until recently, that had never happened in the Midwest. But last month, a group calling itself the "Bolt Weevils" destroyed corn in two separate research plots in Minnesota. One was owned by Pioneer, the other by Novartis. Novartis Seeds CEO Ed Shonsey says he's disturbed by the incident against his company.
Shonsey: We've been encouraging dialogue and tests so I wonder what the vandals are really afraid of or whose purpose they're serving, certainly not the 400 million people in the world who have severe iron deficiency , and that's a problem that's been solved by putting three new genes in golden rice, and that's just one example of how the science is good.
But Shonsey acknowledges the industry hasn't always made a clear case for the possible benefits of biotechnology for the general public.

So far, genetically-engineered agricultural products like Roundup-ready soybeans have had nothing to offer consumers, even though they were easier to grow for farmers and had clear benefits for Monsanto, the maker of Roundup.

Novartis' Shonsey says its time now for the industry to focus on introducing biotechnology products with clear public benefits, such as foods that prevent diseases.