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Are Roundup Ready soybeans pushing out conventional varieties?

by Robert Schubert
Cropchoice.com editor

(March 28, 2001 --Cropchoice news)-- Farmers are struggling to supply Asian and European markets hungry for soybeans that aren't transgenic.

The problem? Conventional soybeans are testing positive for the presence of foreign genes.

With more and more farmers growing Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybeans (engineered to resist Roundup herbicide), contamination is increasing. According to an American Soybean Association report on 2000 soybean plantings, 72 percent of the beans in Nebraska were transgenic, 68 percent in South Dakota, 46 percent in Minnesota, and 22 percent in North Dakota.

Farmers sometimes plant transgenic and conventional varieties next to one another, or sow conventional soybeans on ground where Roundup Ready beans grew the year before. Cross-pollination is also a source of contamination in soybeans. Transgenic seed and grain often remain in the grooves and crevices of planting equipment, combines, trucks, grain elevators and processing facilities.

North Dakota farmer Tom Wiley had grown soybeans for the Japanese market only to learn from a sample taken just before harvest that they contained a small amount of transgenic material -- 1.37 percent. This was enough to kill the sale.

He told The Bismarck Tribune: "I was stunned and sick to my stomach. I finally went into the house to tell my wife we had just lost $ 6,000 because of a neighbor's planting decision."

One could argue that the problem begins with the seed. To protect themselves from liability, dealers will go only so far as to say that to the best of their ability and knowledge the seed is free of genetically modified organisms.

Take NC+ Organics as an example. The seed company sells the Vinton 81 clear hilium soybean seed, characterized by a clear or light yellow circle at its center. This variety is popular with the Japanese for use in tofu and soy milk, because of its color, and high protein and oil content, says Maury Johnson, manager of the Lincoln, NE company.

Despite the fact that the NC+ processing facility accepts only seeds that independent third parties have tested for the presence of transgenic material, it markets the soybean seeds as 99.9 percent free of foreign genes.

So far, organic standards haven't put a limit on the level of genetic contamination. Johnson says that most U.S. certifiers will allow in the neighborhood of .1 percent contamination. In Europe, there is no tolerance.

Impurities might come from the fact that some of the growers on whom it relies for seed stock produce both transgenic and non-transgenic varieties. However, Johnson says they work hard to keep their planting and harvesting equipment clean.

"Today, when 50 percent of soybeans are Roundup Ready and you see a dark hilium bean in with your clear hilium conventional or organic harvest, there's a good chance it's Roundup Ready," says Johnson, noting that the company had to reject some seed because of transgenic contamination.

Dave Stedman, owner and manager of Dakota Sunflower, Inc. in West Fargo, ND, says volunteer soybeans, inadequately cleaned planters, combines, trucks and elevators are leading to more contamination.

Thirty percent of Dakota's business is selling identity preserved (99 percent free of transgenic contamination) clear hilium soybeans to Japan and Europe. The company pays 40 to 50 growers anywhere from 50 cents to $1 per bushel over market price for the soybeans.

In Buffalo, ND, Miller Seed Co. has grown and sold only public soybean varieties, which don't include transgenics.

However, that will change this season when it cultivates a transgenic crop. Company owner Harold Miller doesn't worry about contamination, though. He points out that segregating Roundup Ready soybeans from conventional varieties is no different than keeping two conventional types of beans separate. Both require that all planting and harvesting equipment be cleaned before moving from one variety to the next.

Although he usually saves his soybean seeds, farmer Chuck Nelson does occasionally turn to Miller for supplies. Nelson organically grows soybeans, wheat, oats, alfalfa, buckwheat, millet, sweet clover and, sometimes, sunflowers on more than 2,000 acres in Ayr, ND.

He used to grow corn, but gave up on it because he was concerned about contamination, and, he says, "I won't grow canola because it's a lost cause." Nelson fears that Monsanto's Roundup Ready wheat, which the company is planning to market by 2003 or 2004, will cause contamination problems similar to what happened with StarLink corn. Foreign markets have already warned American growers that they'll reject any transgenic wheat.

He strictly follows organic certification guidelines by planting a 25-foot-wide barrier around his soybeans. Though the beans in that strip are organic, he makes a financial sacrifice to keep his crop pure by taking them to the elevator where they're treated the same as other varieties.

To further protect his crops, Nelson plans to put trees between his fields and those of his neighbors.

As to whether transgenic crops are good or bad, Nelson won't comment, except to suggest that we should slow down with the technology. "If we can't sell our crop (because it's contaminated) then we're in a world of hurt."

Another North Dakota farmer, Rodney Nelson (not related to Chuck Nelson), offers his perspective on Harold Miller's decision to grow both transgenic and conventional soybeans for seed:

"I think Mr. Miller from Buffalo is going to be in for a rude surprise if he really thinks he can use the same machinery and keep his non- gmo pure. This is not to mention cross-pollination(from bees and other insects). He compares this to keeping varieties of the same crop separate. You couldn't tell and you wouldn't care if they were a little mixed anyway. I would be willing to make a wager that in 2 growing seasons he will have unexpected gmo showing up were he doesn't want it."

Nelson thinks the loan guarantees that the U.S. government extends to farmers keeps them from listening to consumers who don't want transgenic crops.

"If the rejection continues, the government will have no choice to but to outlaw gmo (genetically modified organisms)," he says. "If a large percentage of crops have no buyers, then the government can't keep sending billions of dollars to farmers to grow crops that no one wants. The government guarantees a price for beans. If there's no demand, so what? We're guaranteed a price." The national average loan rate is $5.26 per bushel of soybeans. In North Dakota, it's about $4.92 per bushel because of the higher shipping costs.

Nelson, whom Monsanto is suing for allegedly infringing its patent by saving and replanting Roundup Ready seed, wants to grow non-transgenic soybeans. Problem is, he hasn't been able to find a dealer willing to guarantee pure seed.

Last season, under contract with Mycogen, Nelson grew some conventional soybeans. Although the company honored the agreement, it told him that no one wants conventional beans; the move seems to be toward Roundup Ready varieties.

He remembers what the company's representative told him: "By this fall, anyone in this country who wants to plant non-gmo soybeans is going to be out of luck."

Go to Monsanto sues Nelson farm: A North Dakota family's frustrations with genetically engineered soybeans to see the Cropchoice story about Monsanto's lawsuit against Rodney Nelson.