E-mail this article to
yourself or a friend.
Enter address:


Some farmers not following rules for biotech corn: Crops' usefulness is at risk

(Thursday, June 19, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Justin Gillis, Washington Post: A new report says a significant proportion of farmers in three major corn-producing states are failing to comply with government-mandated rules for planting genetically altered corn, raising questions about the long-term usefulness of such crops.

The report, by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, of Washington, is based on data from the Agriculture Department, which surveys farmers about planting practices. The biotechnology industry has claimed, based on its own telephone survey, that only 13 percent of farmers are failing to comply with a key rule designed to preserve the long-term usefulness of certain biotech crops. The new data suggest this number is as high as 19 percent overall, and far higher among small farmers in some locales.

The rules were designed by the Environmental Protection Agency to preserve the long-term usefulness of crops like corn that are genetically engineered to resist insects, which offer the potential for vast reductions in the use of toxic farm chemicals. The rules require farmers to plant a certain amount of ordinary crops near their biotech crops to serve as a "refuge" for troublesome insects, slowing the rate at which these organisms develop genetic resistance to insecticidal proteins in the biotech crops.

Gregory Jaffe, director of biotechnology programs at the CSPI and author of the new report, called on the EPA to crack down on the agricultural biotechnology industry, which is supposed to police farmer compliance. EPA spokesman David Deegan said the agency would study the new report, but he also emphasized that the EPA believes it has imposed "stringent requirements" that are working. Eric Sachs, director of scientific affairs at Monsanto Co., of St. Louis, also said the rules are working, with no evidence that resistant insects have emerged in the nation's corn fields. Monsanto is the leading ag biotech company.

Jaffe's organization supports the technology in principle, but it has long criticized what it sees as weak federal regulation. He charged that, even though the industry's own surveys have found what he characterized as a disturbing level of rule-breaking on farms, the companies that sell biotech seeds have turned a blind eye to the problem, not wanting to get into fights with their customers.

"We have a very powerful technology here that may have tremendous benefits to farmers, the environment and consumers, but that also carries with it potential risks," Jaffe said. "If growing restrictions can't be abided by when they're as simple as they are here, will the government and the industry be able to protect the public from this technology when we have more complex and potentially more dangerous applications?"

Sachs denied that the ag companies have avoided the problem. He said Monsanto had barred a handful of rule violators from buying the company's seeds, and would likely do more of that. "The fact that some are still not following the requirements, it's really unacceptable," he said, while emphasizing that every available set of numbers, including Jaffe's, show the large majority of farmers complying.

The newly released Agriculture Department data cover farms in Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska. Farmers there, sorely afflicted by a pest called the European corn borer, have embraced biotech corn designed to fight off the bug, planting half the nation's acreage of such corn. The new data suggest that some 18 percent of farmers in Iowa, 18 percent in Minnesota, and 22.5 percent in Nebraska are failing to comply with a requirement that they plant 20 percent of their corn acreage in standard varieties that can serve as a refuge for corn borers.

The data include small farms, which the industry's telephone surveys have left out, explaining much of the difference in the two sets of numbers. The industry contends that omitting small farms is justified because most of the nation's corn acreage is planted by large farmers, while Jaffe argues that small farms could turn out to be important in creating resistant bugs. The new data suggest the problem is particularly acute among small farmers in Nebraska, with 37 percent breaking the rules.

Industry data suggest that of farmers who comply with the 20 percent rule, some violate a second rule, requiring that the refuge crops be located within a half mile of the biotech crops. The industry's own numbers suggest that overall, about a quarter of farmers are breaking one rule or the other.

Jaffe urged that the government require a formal certification from farmers, after each spring planting, that they complied with the rules. The biotech industry considers this too burdensome and has preferred educational programs.

Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A10955-2003Jun18.html?nav=hptoc_tn

See related item: 'EPA needs a biotech crop policy,' http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=750