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Organic farmers sing biotech blues

(Tuesday, July 15, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Philip Brasher, Des Moines Register, 07/14/03: Washington, D.C. - Farmers who are trying to fill America's growing appetite for organic food said that genetically engineered corn and soybeans are becoming so widespread that organic growers - who count on selling their crops for two to three times as much as conventional varieties - are having trouble keeping biotech contamination out of their crops.

Federal rules bar the use of biotechnology in organic agriculture, and even the slightest bit of biotech contamination can cut the value of the crop by a third or more.

Roger Lansink, an organic farmer near Odebolt, Ia, said, "The first load of corn you send out with every new crop you hold your breath," and that a "huge percentage" of organic corn probably contains traces of biotech residue.

Organic crops can be contaminated in a variety of ways. Bags of seed often include traces of biotech varieties. Depending on weather conditions and farming practices, organic corn can easily cross-pollinate with biotech corn in nearby fields.

Lansink had a load of soybeans test positive for biotech contamination two years ago and almost had to sell the crop for half what it was worth as an organic crop.

Dave Vetter, a Nebraska farmer, said his organic corn crop tested positive for biotech residue three years in a row, and he lost a customer as a result.

Food companies and livestock producers are increasingly forcing farmers and grain elevators to test organic commodities to detect any traces of biotech material, known as GMO for genetically modified organism.

Lynn Clarkson, president of Clarkson Grain Co. Inc. of Cerro Gordo, Ill., a major supplier of biotech-free grain to U.S. and foreign companies, said, "The trend for difficulty is going up and will continue to get worse if the planting trends for GMOs continues as they've been in the last several years."

A recent survey of U.S. organic farmers by the Organic Farming Research Foundation found more than half of the 990 respondents said the government wasn't doing enough to protect them from biotech contamination and 18 farmers in the survey said their crops had tested positive for biotech material.

When the U.S. Department of Agriculture originally proposed rules for organic agriculture in the mid-1990s, they would have allowed the use of biotech seeds, but USDA reversed itself after receiving thousands of comments opposed to the provision. Not only are organic crop farmers barred from using biotech seeds, but livestock producers also are required to use organically grown feed.

The USDA rules, which took effect last year, don't require organic crops to be tested for biotech residue, and the department says that unintentional biotech residue doesn't prevent a crop from being called "organic."

But that doesn't stop organic food companies and organic livestock producers from requiring seeds and crops to be tested for GMO content.

Both the testing requirements and GMO tolerances - the amount of biotech residue permitted in a crop - vary from company to company. Some grain companies test organic grain if it is to be sold for food but not for animal feed. Other companies test everything.

The financial stakes for farmers are large: Organic soybeans that can be sold for food go for $12.50 to $14.50 a bushel. Feed-grade soybeans sell for about $9 a bushel, still about $3 more than conventional soybeans.