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Government feeding on seed issue

(Thursday, Aug. 10, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Ellyn Ferguson, Gannett News Service, 08/09/04: WASHINGTON — Biotechnology promised farmers a new generation of crops more resistant to hungry insects and more tolerant of herbicides. But some farmers and seed distributors say they’ve had to trade their independence to take advantage of that promise.

These new, better crops cost time and money to genetically engineer. Patents give agribusinesses exclusive rights for 20 years to own and set prices for the plants and seeds they develop. The first major biotech crops started hitting the market in the 1990s.

Each planting season, a farmer must buy a new batch of seed and sign a contract promising not to harvest seeds from the crops they grow and agreeing to any company fees.

“Big Brother knows who’s planting what,” said Rosalie Geiger, chairperson of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board and a dairy farmer near Reedsville.

Geiger runs Ran-Rose Dairy with her husband, Randy. They milk about 67 cows and crop alfalfa and corn on 300 acres. They’ve planted genetically modified crops before, but didn’t see enough return on their investment, which is substantially more than general crops. They didn’t enjoy the invasion of privacy, either.

According to Sharon Broeckel, office manager at Calumet Feeds & Supply in New Holstein, farmers must sign contracts that include information about the farm for the Roundup-ready beans they sell, engineered by Monsanto. Distributors have to file 15 different reports. If they’re late, they pay a fee.

“They know everything,” Broeckel said. “It makes you unwilling to sell it,” she said, adding that recent price hikes have determined the company probably won’t sell the genetically modified seeds in the future. “Monsanto should have just left things alone.”

Some farmers are chafing at the control and cost. They want to save seeds from their genetically modified crop to plant the next season, but Steve Hoffman, an independent crop consultant, said he really hasn’t seen that problem here.

The trick, Hoffman said, is a balancing act to determine the most cost-effective route for farmers.

About 90 percent of all soybean acreage in Wisconsin is Monsanto, he said.

Some farmers refuse to go biotech.

Norbert Orth of Orth Farms, a farmer and seed distributor near Cleveland, said biotech corn and beans are too expensive and the returns aren’t rewarding enough.

“We do very well with just the regular corn … the best single hybrids … $25 a bag lower than the private bio-tech seeds,” Orth said. “(There are) a lot of options out there. Some guys totally believe in (biotech).

A struggle between farmers and biotech firms has spread from the farm fields, where companies have sent testers to check for unauthorized biotech crops, to courthouses, where biotech firms have filed about 100 lawsuits against farmers for keeping seeds.

Now farmers are taking the fight to statehouses and Congress. Marcy Kaptur, a House Democrat from Ohio, has introduced a long-shot bill to have the federal government set fees farmers could pay companies for the right to save and plant seeds from biotech crops they raise.

Mark Henry, an Arkansas attorney who has represented some of the largest seed companies in patent and contract disputes, said the bill is an attempt to get around current patent law. Without patents and contracts for genetically engineered seed, Henry said, “You have no control over it once it is out the door.”

The fight is unlikely to affect the supply to consumers of cotton, canola and soybean products, the three top crops dominated by biotech that wind up in cooking oil or in livestock feed.

But groups like the National Farmers Union that represent small growers warn that corporate interests are increasing their control of a basic ingredient of food production — seeds.

Joseph Mendelson, legal director for the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C., said the right of private companies to patent seeds has led to fewer choices for farmers. Mendelson, whose group has challenged the introduction of genetically engineered crops, said publicly funded universities are producing fewer new crop varieties because most research is now funded by companies that patent the results.

Wes Shoemyer, a Missouri House member who raises cattle, corn, soybean and wheat, has tried for three years to get a bill passed in his state that would let farmers save the seed from biotech crops. Similar proposals have been made in Iowa and Minnesota.

He likens biotech companies to drug companies, saying both have patented products developed with the help of taxpayer-funded research. U.S. consumers end up paying more than foreign consumers for drugs because of foreign price controls, and they pay more for biotech seeds because of a lack of enforcement of patents and contracts overseas.

“People who buy prescription drugs can sympathize. Before the American farmer ever puts a seed in the ground, he’s at a competitive disadvantage,” Shoemyer said.

Not all farmers feel the same way.

The American Farm Bureau Federation, one of the more influential agriculture groups on Capitol Hill, has not taken a position on the bill by Kaptur.

But the group is concerned about involving the federal government in setting fees for private business, said Michelle Gorman, regulatory affairs director for the farm bureau.

The farm bureau also is worried about the bill’s proposal for higher U.S. tariffs on biotech products from countries where farmers don’t have to pay biotech fees similar to those charged in the United States. Gorman said the World Trade Organization might rule such a trade provision illegal and retaliate with tariffs against U.S. farm goods.

But Kaptur said U.S. biotech companies aren’t getting the tech fees and patent protection overseas they are entitled to and U.S. growers are at a competitive price disadvantage because of seed costs.

“This is an immediate economic need,” Kaptur said.

She plans to reintroduce the bill in 2005 when Congress begins a new two-year session.

Biotech firms warn that anything that weakens the patent protections for genetically modified crops would make companies less inclined to develop new plants.

U.S. law gives companies the right to protect their investment, said Lisa Dry, a spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which counts agri-biotech companies Monsanto Co. and DowAgroScience among its members.

Farmers unhappy with the way the companies do business are free to go elsewhere for seed, she added.

“Farmers have the choice to buy whatever seed they want,” Dry said.

Neil Hamilton, agricultural law director at Drake University, said he understands farmer’s concerns about agribusiness trends, but he said it “comes 10 to 15 years too late. You’re dealing with a fait accompli.”

HTR staff writer Neil Rhines contributed to this story.

Source: Manitowac Herald Times http://www.wisinfo.com/heraldtimes/news/archive/local_17262568.shtml