22 November 1996

US LETTER

Rumblings in Europe that consumers wont accept bio-engineered US soybeans in their food products arent worrying US farmers at all. In fact they cant wait to increase their acreage of bio-engineered crop, as Illinois-based commentator

Alan Guebert reports

AS the warm October sun washes over the rust-coloured, weed-free field, a red combine chews through dozens of straight rows of soybeans. Dust pours from the rear of the machine as common-looking soybeans pour into the combines grain hopper.

But these are not common soybeans. These soybeans are part of the first commercially produced Roundup-Ready soybeans in the US. In fact, all across the American Middle West, thousands of farmers are harvesting similar bio-engineered soybeans.

And bio-engineered maize. And, in the American south, bio-engineered cotton, too. Early harvest results suggest the biotech-produced corn, soybean and cotton yields are as good as – and in some instances, much better than – traditional seeds.

Because of that, the chief question now facing many farmers is not whether Europe and other US commodity-buying nations will allow these biotech crops into their food chain.

Instead, the main question these producers have is far more local: How can I get my hands on more of these biotech seeds next year?

Call it old fashioned American arrogance, but few US farmers who grew genetically altered crops this year worry about threatened restrictions, consumer rebellions or foreign processors boycotting their goods.

"Ive already ordered enough Roundup soybeans to plant about 160ha (400 acres) next year," notes Robert Kiecker, a farmer who grows 1200ha (3000 acres) of maize, soybeans and sugar beet in Minnesota. "I hope I can get it all."

Its a big step for Kiecker and his partner sons, who did plant biotech corn this year, but not Roundup-Ready soybeans. Watching the neighbours bio-beans this past season proved to the farming family they were ready for Roundup-Ready.

"The way we figure, the new beans may not save us any production costs, reckons Kiecker, because the seed will cost us about $8/acre and spraying Roundup costs about $24/acre.

"By using Roundup as our principal weed herbicide, though, we can plant sugar beet after beans with chemical carryover while probably getting better weed control in the beans too. To us, thats a plus."

Does he worry about European calls to keep genetically altered beans separate from his traditional beans?

"Not really," Kiecker confesses. "Japan and Canada, our two biggest commodity buyers, do not require us to keep the beans separate. Somebody will buy them, right?

That pragmatic approach is not the stance taken by the United States Department of Agriculture. If the biotech seed leads to an international food fight, USDA seems very willing to fight, if not for transgenic crops, then for the principle.

"Most analysts in the biotech field see two competing concerns with these biotech varieties," explains George Frisvold, an economist with USDAs commercial ag division. "First there is the consumer side. Are the new crops different from the traditional crops? The scientists say no.

"The other concern is on the production side," Frisvold continues. "Do these new seeds mean lower costs of production and higher yields for American farmers? If so, then competing farmers around the world may feel threatened by this technology."

While both concerns may be valid, he notes, "The second is used to reinforce the first and thus we see non-tariff barriers imposed on US transgenic crops in the name of consumer protection in several countries."

A much better approach, believes Frisvold, "would be science-based decisions, then enforcement of current multilateral trade agreements. The US is pursuing this course."

Kathryn De Remer, an official with USDAs Foreign Agricultural Service, is more direct. "Many branches of the US government – the Environmental Prot- ection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, USDA, to name a few – view some of these major biotech crop issues as cut-and-dried.

"What that means is that if science says there is no difference between transgenic crops and traditional crops, then the rest of the world should accept the fact that there is no difference," DeRemer notes.

"If, when given the choice," she states, "consumers choose not to buy products made from transgenic crops, fine. But they should be given the choice. Non-tariff barriers should not be erected to limit choices."

If US farm trade officials sound defensive, it is only because they are. Presently, the EU and the US are squaring up before the World Trade Organisations Dispute Resolution Panel over the EUs stand to not allow imports of hormone-fed US beef. The panel ruling on that issue, guesses DeRemer, may set the precedent for future use of American transgenic crops in Europe and elsewhere.

Back in the US, however, farmers like Kiecker are sorting through this years crop results to formulate planting plans for 1997. They seem unaffected by the potential trade war brewing. "Ah, theyll all figure it out in the end, dont you think?" Kiecker asks somewhat hopefully.

Perhaps, but global seed companies are proceeding as if the consumer and trade problems posed by transgenic crops are resolved already. More than 65 seed companies will offer enough transgenic soybean seed to plant 4m hectares (10m acres) or 15% of the US soybean crop next year.