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An option for growers of non-transgenic crops?

(February 12, 2001 --Cropchoice news) -- A bill is moving through the North Dakota legislature that would enable the state Seed Department to establish a seed and crops verification program for farmers who want to grow and market non-genetically modified crops to markets that have shunned biotech food. Some, however, point out that growers can't garner enough of a premium on such crops to justify the extra effort and expense.

This proposal comes amid concern from export markets over Monsanto's introduction of Roundup Ready wheat sometime between 2003 and 2005. North Dakota is one of the nation's top wheat growing states.

"Establishing a framework for this program will give us enough time to be out ahead of any kind of genetically modified wheat," said Ken Bertsch, North Dakota state seed commissioner. "We've achieved our goal if it produces additional profit for farmers." He noted that the state already operates many components of this type of a verification program for growers of specialty soybeans.

The seed verification bill, SB 2235, passed the Senate Agriculture Committee and the full Senate, Bertsch said. Now, it goes to the House of Representatives.

Were it to pass, participating farmers would finance the program from fees for services. The state Seed Commission would test their seed and then their crop at various points for specific genetic traits. The commission would then issue a stamp of approval.

Bertsch thinks this program could help North Dakota farmers in overseas markets where worries about genetically modified foods are growing.

Unless the markets changes, some aren't sure that farmers would receive enough of a premium to make planting non-genetically engineered varieties profitable for them.

Doug Jorgenson, a certified professional agronomist with the Agronomy Center in Park Rivers, ND, has first-hand experience trying to grow and market without biotech.

A year ago, he and a friend bid 95 cents over market value to grow non- genetically engineered corn. The winning bid was 45 cents: unprofitable, Jorgenson says.

He remembers a survey that the National Corn Growers Association took of its members two years ago about what kind of premiums they'd need to grow and market non-genetically modified corn. Most answered 5 cents.

"That's just not realistic," says Jorgenson, adding that the respondents probably thought that all they would have to do is grow the corn in a separate field and dump it in a separate bin.

The reality is that non-biotech growers must test and document the seed source, ensure that their ground is free of genetically engineered material, segregate the field from the possibility of out crossing, test the field again at harvest since lots of pollen floats around at that time, place the material in bins that have never had genetically engineered corn and market it through a segregated system (meaning that they can't take it to a grain elevator).

When you add up all this, he says, farmers would have to receive at least $1 a bushel over the market price.

"In time," he says, "a non gmo market will develop and this will give farmers their premium." In his opinion, for all crops to be free of biotech, consumers will have to pay up to 50 percent more for their food.