4 September 1999

Gee, whats this fuss

about GMs

Genetic danger – or useful technology? US growers are in no doubt; theyre welcoming GM crops, as Gilly Johnson discovers on a trip into rural Indiana.

THREE years ago, Scott Fritz planted the first GM varieties in his rotation. Hes convinced it was a smart move – not least on environmental grounds. Visit his farm and you quickly understand why.

Scotts land is an hours drive south of Chicago, in the rural landscape of Indiana, near the small town of Winamac. At 1,050ha (2,600 acres), Fritz Black Sand Farm would be a large holding in the UK; in the US its a moderate size, enough to support one working family.

This isnt large-scale prairie farming, where the environment might be considered a contradiction in terms. Spend a few hours in his company, walking his large, open fields, fringed with woodland, and its clear that Scott cares deeply about the health of his soil, and the rural environment – just as his father did, and his grandfather before him.

Just as much, in fact, as does any green-minded grower in the UK. But – and here the chasm opens between the two countries – Scott had not the slightest qualm when he introduced the first GM varieties of soybean and corn (maize) into the rotation. His fellow growers were equally enthusiastic. In the US, GM varieties now cover half the soya, and about 30% of the corn area.

GM herbicide tolerant soya, and pest resistant corn help lessen the impact of intensive cropping, he thinks. Scott takes the sprayer out less often, and when he does, he fills the tank with products such as glyphosate (Roundup).

In the general media, non-selective herbicides such as glyphosate have been described as more powerful, implying they are more dangerous environmentally than a cocktail of selective products. But anyone with practical experience of herbicides will recognise that this isnt the case.

With soya, Scott is much happier using what may only be a low dose (half or quarter rate) of glyphosate, than his conventional programme (based on imazamox/imidazol, not available in the UK). "Roundups been around for a long time; it has a safe track record. And weve never seen any damage to our GM soya from Roundup, but thats not the case with conventional beans – they can be set back by standard herbicide."

But the main benefit from Roundup Ready soya is that it makes his life so much easier, and heres why. Scott has some difficult, weedy fields – "though like any farmer, I hate to admit it!" These weeds are, in true US style, far bigger and tougher than those seen in the UK; pokeweed, mulberry bushes, ragweed, milkweed, hemp dogbane, growing to 1m high in the young, open crop.

These are a problem with conventional soybean. Some of these weeds cant be controlled easily with post-em selective herbicides within the soybean/corn rotation. And even those that are susceptible, will still survive if Scott is even a few days late with spraying, and weeds have grown tall. A plough/cultivation solution is ruled out – the farm has run on a low cost no-till system for nearly 20 years, to prevent soil erosion and maintain fertility.

Conventional

So having the glyphosate option widens the spraying window. He can clobber those big weeds successfully. And if he is able to spray early, then he can cut rates, and save money. Neighbouring growers have been using just a quarter rate Roundup, with perhaps a repeat spray 10 days later if necessary, on their GM varieties. Scott has put his Roundup Ready soya on his worst fields, so has kept rates up for now.

But the opportunity to cut costs makes the economics of GM soybean more attractive; GM seed prices (which include a technology fee) are high – but not quite high enough to price them out of the market. On balance, financial returns from GM soya probably have the edge over the conventional by a small margin, he says. Thats not because yields are any better, but because of easier management and potentially lower spray bills.

Not all his soybean varieties are GM this year. Only two out of the five are Roundup Ready GM soybean; two are conventional varieties, and one is a herbicide-tolerant variety from DuPont that has not been bred by genetic engineering but occurred as a natural mutation in laboratory experiments following repeat sprays with one particular herbicide.

This is called an STS variety. The herbicide which it can tolerate is Synchrony (chlorimuron-ethyl plus thifensulfuron-methyl), which controls grasses and certain broadleaved weeds, and is not available in the UK.

With his GM pest resistant corn varieties, Scott reckons theres also an environmental argument in favour. More than two years out of five, European corn borer attacks his crops, with yield losses of 25% or so. The only remedy is to spray broad spectrum insecticide – and timing has to be spot on, or the pest may have escaped the reach of the insecticide by burrowing deep within the stem. "We should understand that these broad spectrum products dont only kill corn borers, they kill monarch butterflies and other insects," he says.

Bt corn varieties are engineered to be resistant to the European corn borer. That saves Scott applying any insecticides. However, seed prices are about 30% more – and if corn borer isnt about that season, then hes wasted his money.

Like any canny grower in the UK, Scott is loath to spend extra. This season hes taken the risk and used conventional varieties. "Economically, it doesnt make much difference whether we spray or use Bt corn instead. In terms of management though, conventional corn is more hassle."

This year, Roundup Ready Bt corn was available for the first time. Scott didnt buy any – for two reasons. The first is that weed control isnt as difficult in corn as it is in soybean; herbicides are effective and then the crop grows rapidly and smothers weeds well. So he doesnt feel any pressing need for Roundup Ready corn.

His second reason is that Roundup Ready Bt corn is not one of the GM varieties which has received European approval – and so exports could legally be blocked if this variety was found in a shipment of maize. Since taking on an official role in the American Soybean Association (ASA), Scott has quickly come to realise the extent of the European resistance to GM food – though hes at a loss to understand exactly why. The ASA promotes soya exports, which are effected through the United Soybean Board, a grower levy-funded body.

Segregation

Scott does not believe that segregation of GM and non-GM material is easily achievable. Segregation is a subject hes familiar with; Scott grows corn for popcorn, which is strictly segregated and controlled through identify preservation from seed through to processing. In a system similar to that used for certified seed in the UK, he has his crops inspected regularly, and must clean out all equipment to prevent contamination. Crops are grown on fields known to be clear of volunteer problems, and all inputs are recorded. Careful harvesting is needed so not to scratch the kernel skin.

All this costs money. Scott receives a premium of about 10% – recompense for his time and trouble. And hed be perfectly willing to supply non-GM material in a similar fashion – but with three caveats. "First, youll only be getting a limited quantity, not bulk. Second, I cant guarantee 100% purity – thats impossible, with GM varieties on the farm. The EU would have to set a realistic degree of tolerance. Third, you must pay me a premium, or its not worth the extra work involved."

"Theres no going back in the US. GM varieties are here to stay – and well see more appear every year. So the big question is whether the EU is willing to pay extra for non-GM soya. Is the consumer willing to pay more?"

Soil type: organic black sandy loam

Cropping: 1,050ha (2,600 acres) split equally between soybean and corn (maize), some popcorn under identity preserved buybacks. Soya and corn alternate on a yearly basis

Yield potential: average for the US; 2.7t/ha (40 bushels/acre) soya; 8.1t/ha (120 bushels/acre) corn

Cultivations: Switched completely to no till in the 1980s to combat soil erosion, maintain moisture and reduce labour and costs

Machinery: No till John Deere drill for soya, Kinze no till corn planter, 60ft sprayer, 2 tractors, 30ft head Frazer International combine, two trucks

Labour: self and one full-time worker, casual harvest labour

GM cropping: Two out of five soya varieties are GM Roundup Ready. GM Bt pest resistant corn varieties used occasionally

Biggest worry for the farm business: low prices. Corn and soya at record lows