Industry is being battered by:
The campaign by trade associations and biotech giants such as Monsanto Co. is aimed not only at securing sales for farmers this year but also at convincing them to buy gene-altered seed for the next planting season.
"What we are seeing is a lot of discussion and confusion," said Randy Krotz, a Monsanto spokesman. "We are hoping that a calmer and more educated voice will prevail in the next few weeks."
At the same time, however, companies and trade groups say they want farmers to make informed choices, emphasizing that there is plenty of conventional seed for the next planting season.
"We're very committed to biotechnology, but we want to help farmers work out their purchases from the aspect of the bottom line," said Doyle Karr, a spokesman for Pioneer Hi-Bred International of Des Moines, Iowa, the world's largest seed company.
"We look at this as a matter of choice," Karr said. "We have GMO and non-GMO seed." (GMO stands for genetically modified organisms, a term often used to describe gene-altered crops and foods.)
"We don't think there will be any problem with non-GMO seed this year," said Bob Callanan, a spokesman for the American Soybean Association. "The supply will be sufficient."
The agribusiness response is the result of several controversies rippling through the food business:
"We haven't seen any tidal wave of opposition against the trend for planting biotech seed," said Tony Minnichsoffer, communications manager for Novartis Seeds Inc.
Typically, biotech crops have been altered to tolerate some herbicides and defeat several major pests. This year, genetically modified seeds accounted for half the U.S. soybean acres, 35 percent of corn acres and 55 percent of cotton acres. There were no commercial plantings four years ago.
Despite such growth, the question now is: Will more farmers buy more biotech seeds, or will they hedge their bets and buy less? Most will decide between mid-October and mid-December.
The biotech defense campaign focuses primarily on grain elevators' messages to farmers to segregate seeds and the firms' offers of more money for non-biotech grain.
A telephone survey commissioned by Monsanto shows that 8 percent of Midwestern grain elevators are segregating non-biotech soybeans, and 11 percent are segregating biotech-free corn. The survey was conducted by Sparks Companies Inc., a Memphis, Tenn., commodity research firm.
Three percent of the elevators will pay a premium for non-biotech soybeans; 1 percent will pay extra for non-biotech corn.
"This survey helps put the segregation noise in perspective," said Carl Casale, director of Monsanto's North American agricultural business. "The fact is that non-biotech crops continue to be an opportunity for only a few growers to serve the niche needs and budgets of specialty buyers."
The survey covered 100 grain elevators in nine states, and Sparks said the sample size "adequately reflects" the market in those states.
Trade groups have weighed in, telling farmers where they can sell biotech grains.
The American Seed Trade Association recently posted the names of 2,000 grain handlers accepting biotech corn on its Web site. They represent 53 percent of the U.S. market. The group identified another 2,000 grain handlers accounting for 23 percent of the market. They accept biotech corn but are booked solid with suppliers.
The American Soybean Association and National Corn Growers Association offer a running tally of biotech trade and grain-elevator news, as well as data on meeting customers' demands for biotech-free crops.
"There's a large confusion factor out there," said Kevin Aandahl, a corn group spokesman. "Any processor that needs or desires an assured source of conventional corn should be willing to pay a strong incentive."
Trade groups tell their members to calculate carefully whether premiums for non-biotech crops make sense. Separating grains requires extra time and money.
If a farmer can't find a nearby elevator to pay extra for biotech-free grain, the travel expenses could erode the premium. Another issue is liability: If genetic tests contradict a farmer's claim that his crop is biotech-free, he could face a crippling penalty.
The American Soybean Association said that despite highly publicized comments by some companies in Europe and Japan, there has been little call for biotech-free soybeans so far.
Last year, the U.S. exported 770 million bushels of soybeans, or 29 percent of the crop. The only bioengineered bean approved for export to Europe and Japan is Monsanto's Roundup herbicide-tolerant bean.
"We have seen little willingness from European customers to pay a premium for non-biotech soybeans," says a Monsanto brochure being circulated throughout the food chain.
Corn is more complicated. There are several kinds of insect-fighting corn and herbicide-tolerant corn made by several companies. Each kind of biotech corn must be approved separately.
About 35 percent of this year's U.S. corn crop - 1.9 billion bushels - was bioengineered. Only 2.5 percent of the total U.S. crop didn't get clearance from European regulators, said Chip Flory, editor of the ProFarmer Newsletter, a weekly marketing publication in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
But just because foreign regulators allow crops to be imported, that doesn't mean food companies will buy them. U.S. corn exports to the 15-nation European Union sank sharply from 1996-97 to 1997-98.
Still, the United States "can easily consume every kernel of GMO corn out there," Flory said.
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Last Updated on 9/26/99
By Karen Lutz