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Colorado wheat grower sees transgenic threats to family farmers

by Robert Schubert
Cropchoice.com editor

(March 6, 2001 --Cropchoice news)-- One try with transgenic crops was enough for David Dechant.

"I don't trust it," says Dechant, who grows wheat, corn and alfalfa on 3,000 acres in northern Colorado with his father and brother.

Transgenics describe the process in which scientists insert a gene construct into one plant species to create a different one. It's unlike conventional hybridization in that the gene(s) originate in a species with no close relationship to the resulting plant.

The technology has affected the lives of family farmers in numerous ways.

They've lost money to foreign markets that don't want transgenic corn or soy. Major European grocery store chains, such as Tesco and Asda/Wal-Mart, have cleared their shelves of foods containing such ingredients. The Japanese and South Koreans cut their corn imports following the StarLink corn debacle.

The U.S. government had approved transgenic StarLink only for livestock feed. Nonetheless, the corn that scientists suspect may be allergenic contaminated the human food supply, spawning a slew of food recalls.

Despite consumer rejection and lost markets, Monsanto plans to push ahead with a 2003 introduction of Roundup Ready wheat, which it has engineered to resist the Roundup herbicide (glyphosate).

Meanwhile, the St. Louis-based biotechnology company is suing hundreds of farmers. It accuses them of violating its patents by saving seed to plant on their own farms.

An alternative to this technology, which benefits mainly big agribusiness companies, says Dechant, is more public investment and research into crops that help the family farmer.


The first and last time David Dechant tried growing transgenic crops was 1998, when he planted Roundup Ready corn on 60 acres. The plants yielded almost the same amount of corn as his conventional varieties, but he had a tough time getting Roundup to kill a weed called lambs quarter.

But it's what happened late that summer that turned Dechant sour on transgenics. He learned that the European Union was rejecting all U.S. whole corn to avoid contamination with the Roundup Ready variety, which it had not approved for human consumption. (Monsanto's Bt corn did have approval.) Knowing that the United States lacked a reliable mechanism to verify or segregate transgenic corn, Europe's decision possibly avoided a prequel to the StarLink episode. Europe still buys U.S. gluten meal for animal feed, which he says likely contains Roundup Ready corn.

U.S. farmers had been selling about 1 million tons of corn a year to Europe at a reduced tariff. This was part of a concession the European Union made to non-member countries when it accepted Spain and Portugal into the Union in 1986. This provision allows countries outside the EU to sell 2 million tons of corn a year to Spain and 500,000 tons to Portugal.

Dechant directs his ire over the loss of the European whole corn market at Monsanto. Instead of taking responsibility, he says, the company blamed Europe. He remembers a Monsanto representative's statement at a grower meeting: "The EU's regulatory system isn't working right."

"I feel that Monsanto took something of great value from us," he says. "Monsanto did nothing to guarantee that Roundup Ready corn would not contaminate export crops," because it failed to instruct farmers about the common sources of contamination -- cross-pollination, leftover transgenic seed and grain in planting and harvesting equipment, and commingling during distribution.

"The European Union was justified in refusing our corn because of possible Roundup Ready corn contamination. The StarLink debacle proves that," he says. In 2000, Roundup Ready corn acreage exceeded StarLink by about three times.

"I blame the StarLink problem on the fact that Monsanto got away with costing us the European whole corn export market," he says. "It set a precedent for Aventis to come in with StarLink that wasn't approved at all (for livestock or human food) in Europe or Japan."

Dechant sent a 1999 Monsanto technology agreement to Cropchoice to make his point that farmers were on their own to deal with the consequences of planting its transgenic crops. At one point in the document, the company tells growers: "Regulatory approval of grain harvested from seed of Roundup Ready corn is pending in certain export markets and may not be received before the end of 1999. As a result, the Grower may be restricted from introducing the grain into channels of trade where the potential for export to those markets exists. In such cases, the Grower must be prepared to feed the grain on-farm, or sell it for use in domestic markets only."

While foreign markets were spurning genetically modified organisms, Monsanto set about investigating hundreds of farmers it thought were violating the patent on its herbicide resistance technology by saving the seed for future use.

"Monsanto was using police state tactics to sniff out seed savers," Dechant says. "It sent Pinkerton investigators into rural communities to investigate and harass farmers, and it broadcast radio ads urging neighbors to rat out one another."

Lori Fisher, the director of Public Affairs for Monsanto, says that it must protect growers who abide by its seed-saving prohibition.

"That argument is a bunch of crap," he says. "Monsanto lets Argentinian farmers save seed."


Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-Bred International got utility patents for their transgenic crop technology under section 101 of the Patent Act (Title 35 of the U.S. Code).

The companies claim that these patents can be used to prevent both farmers from saving the genetically modified seeds for their own use and researchers from experimenting with the seeds, says Iowa attorney Bruce Johnson.

He is defending J.E.M Ag Supply Co. against a Pioneer Hi-Bred International lawsuit contending that the supply company infringed on its patent by selling hybrid corn seed purchased from Pioneer. The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear J.E.M.'s appeal of lower court rulings favoring Pioneer.

"At issue in the case is whether the Plant Variety Protection Act provides the exclusive federal statutory means of prohibiting others from sexually reproducing (by seed) a plant variety and therefore renders invalid any attempt to use utility patents to prevent others from sexually reproducing a plant variety," Johnson says.

To protect the rights of creators of plants that reproduce sexually (with seeds), such as soybeans, corn and wheat, Congress passed the Plant Variety Protection Act in 1970. However, the Act includes an exception that honors farmers' centuries-old practice of saving seed for their own use.

This case bears on Monsanto lawsuits against a number of farmers over seed saving. It examines specifically the relationship between the Plant Variety Protection Act and utility patents, says attorney Sosamma Samuel-Burnett of Waide and Associates in Tupelo, Miss. She's representing farmers in those lawsuits.

"Even if a utility patent protects the patent holder in terms of the first generation of seed," Samuel-Burnett explains, "there is considerable question as to whether that same patent can extend to the progeny of that seed."


Monsanto wants to expand the reach of its transgenic technology into South America. Argentinian farmers already grow Roundup Ready soybeans, but they're allowed to save seeds because Argentina doesn't recognize patents on plants, Dechant says.

Next door, the Brazilian government has forbidden the cultivation of transgenic soybeans. This has helped Brazilian farmers exploit European markets hungry for conventional soybeans. Nonetheless, some farmers reportedly plant and use unlicensed Roundup Ready soybeans and Roundup herbicide.

"Monsanto is licking its chops to introduce Roundup Ready soybeans into Brazil," Dechant says, "but it's unlikely to enforce the seed-saving prohibition there because of the presence of bootleg Roundup Ready soybeans."

To get around these problems, Dechant thinks we could see the re-emergence of two types of genes.

Delta and Pine Land has announced plans to commercialize the Terminator gene, which renders a plant's seeds sterile.

"What really burns me is that the USDA, which owns fifty percent of the patent covering the gene, hasn't come out against it," he says. "They call it gene-use-restriction technology. I call it monopoly-protection technology. Is this what President Lincoln wanted when he created the USDA and subsequently the land grant universities?"

In Brazil, Dechant says, Monsanto might turn to the Traitor gene to enforce its patent. With this gene, scientists could engineer the herbicide resistance in Roundup Ready soybeans to activate only when growers apply Roundup that contains a particular chemical.

In the June 1999 issue of the Argentinian farm magazine La Chacra, a Brazilian seed company executive discusses the Traitor gene: "I believe Monsanto doesn't want to happen here (Brazil) the same thing that happened in Argentina, where it lost a lot of market share because of the large number of generic glyphosate products. They are looking at a way to mix with Roundup -- it could be a coadjuvant -- that would permit that Roundup Ready soybeans can only be sprayed with this product."


Dechant is flatly opposed to Monsanto's Roundup Ready wheat, which it plans to introduce sometime between 2003 and 2005.

He's concerned about the negative effects the transgenic wheat could have on foreign markets and about whether those farmers who choose to grow Roundup Ready wheat will be allowed to save the seed.

Cropchoice reported last month that markets in Asia, Europe and the Middle East, which together buy millions of tons of U.S. wheat, have warned Monsanto and U.S. farmers not to bother with the transgenic wheat because they won't buy it. Even if governments eventually approve the variety, as the biotechnology industry is pressuring them to do, millers and stores don't have to buy it. In short, approval doesn't equal acceptance.

Tsutomu Shigota, senior managing director of the Japan Flour Millers Association, in January told Dow Jones: "Under the circumstances, I strongly doubt that any bakery and noodle products made from genetically modified wheat or even conventional wheat that may contain modified wheat will be accepted in the Japanese market. World wheat supply has been abundant in recent years, and I don't see why we have to deal with modified wheat...I believe the production of modified wheat at this time will be a very risky challenge for U.S. producers."

On Jan. 5, Algeria, which imports large amounts of durum wheat from the United States, announced that it would not import any genetically modified wheat. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are taking a similar tack with respect to wheat.

One must remember that the major wheat exporters -- the United States, Argentina, Canada and Australia -- support transgenic crops. If all were to commercialize Roundup Ready wheat, could reluctant foreign markets avoid it? Dechant thinks that at least one of the big exporters will hold out to capture market share on conventional wheat.

Australia took conventional canola markets away from Canada, and Brazil has stepped in to supply Europe and other places with non-transgenic soybeans.

According to Monsanto spokesman Mark Buckingham in an earlier Cropchoice.com story ("Farmers, foreign markets send negative signals about Roundup Ready wheat," February 2001): "We will not launch Roundup Ready wheat until it has full regulatory approval for food and feed use in the United States and in Japan." Europe is conspicuously absent from that statement.

"I remember being at a meeting where a Monsanto representative got up and said, 'we will not commercialize the wheat until it gets worldwide approval, except for Europe because its regulatory system doesn't work,'" Dechant says. "Monsanto ought to be damn glad that the EU is still taking Roundup Ready and BT corn in gluten meal or else it would have a hard time selling the technology anywhere."

To further assuage anti-transgenic markets, Monsanto wants to work with the National Association of Wheat Growers and U.S. Wheat Associates to develop a system of separating transgenic from conventional wheat.

But the lingering StarLink issue plants the seeds of doubt in the minds of some wheat growers.

North Dakota wheat farmer Todd Leake is one of them. Based on conversations with farmers, elevator managers and executives at grain companies, he doubts whether Monsanto and the wheat industry have the ability to segregate transgenic wheat.

Dechant agrees, but even if it were to succeed, he says, "all of the burden of segregation should be placed on gmo (genetically modified organisms) growers and seed companies, not on gmo-free growers. I shouldn't have to do anything out of the ordinary when I go to sell wheat."

As the experiment with transgenic crops proceeds, vocabulary has been changing.

"The industry is calling gmo-free corn a specialty crop," he says. "They do that so they can stick the non-gmo growers with the cost of segregation."


Most land grant universities with wheat breeding programs, including Colorado State University, are working with Monsanto to engineer the Roundup Ready gene into adapted wheat varieties for their region, says Dr. James Quick, head of the Soil and Crop Sciences Department at CSU. When the research is done, Monsanto likely will patent the seed. This of course means that farmers must buy new seed every year.

"We have a partnership with Monsanto and other companies that have gene characteristics that we think add value to Colorado agriculture," Quick says. "Companies will not invest in seed research or variety development if they can't get a return on the investment. To do this, they have to control the seed."

In any case, he says, soybean and wheat farmers save their seed because viable hybrids don't exist. Soybean and wheat cultivars are pure-breeding lines, which means they're self-pollinating.

Almost all U.S. corn growers, on the other hand, have to buy new seed each year because they are planting commercial hybrids. If they were to save and re-plant the hybrid seed, their yields would drop by 30 to 40 percent.

With Roundup Ready soybeans (and soon, transgenic wheat), Monsanto has essentially created a "transgenic hybrid" that it wants to protect with patents.


The alternative to public universities helping Monsanto and other biotechnology companies satisfy their profit motives, Dechant says, is more public investment and research into crops and technologies that benefit the family farmer.

Expanding research into open-pollinated corn is one way to do this, he says. Farmers plant almost 50 percent of the world's corn acreage to open pollinated varieties, most of it in developing countries.

The biggest benefit for growers is that they save their seed. The downside is lower yields, which more public research could address, he says.

But are private companies going to invest in a technology that will allow farmers to save seed?

"I'm all for open pollinated varieties," says Scott Haley, a CSU associate professor and wheat breeder. "But I don't see where the money is going to come from for it."

USDA Agricultural Research Service and Iowa State University corn breeder Kendall Lamkey is a big proponent of open pollinated varieties.

Before discussing their benefits, he mentions that American agriculture focuses too much on acreage and production.

"Farmers have a high yield mentality," Lamkey says. "They equate high yields with high profits."

Unfortunately, it hasn't worked out that way. U.S. farmers harvested a record corn crop last year, but the prices they received were low -- $1.85 per bushel on average.

Open pollinated corn has a long history. Farmers grew it in the 1930s, prior to commercialization of hybrids. Researchers, including breeders at ISU, created hybrid lines from open pollinated corn.

Growing these types could help farmers reduce their input costs. First off, he says, not having to buy seed is a considerable savings. By comparison, growers of hybrids spend about $30 to $50 per acre for seed every year.

And farmers also apply a lot of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, the production of which is energy intensive. Growers could cut their nitrogen use in half, he says, if they switched to open pollinated varieties. Even better, they'd not have to apply nitrogen at all if they planted alfalfa or some other legume and then plowed it down prior to sowing corn.

Lamkey has anecdotal evidence that open-pollinated varieties feature more protein.

Organic corn farmers often choose to grow open pollinated corn to avoid transgenic contamination.

That was until two years ago, when organic corn seed began showing transgenic characteristics. This likely will lead to a shortage of organic corn this year, he says, noting that agribusiness has made no attempt to deal with the issue.

Researchers have been working on improving the yields of these varieties. They've developed a synthetic variety that is genetically equivalent to open-pollinated varieties. Iowa State University researchers have tested yield 80 to 90 bushels per acre, which is less than hybrid varieties.

"I think we could catch up (to hybrid yield levels) if there were enough breeders working on the issue," he says.

But if a 1994 Iowa State study is any indication, that's not going to happen. It found that of 545 scientists involved in corn breeding, 510 worked in private industry. The other 35 were divided between state agriculture experiment stations and the USDA Agricultural Research Service.

Once public universities create these public variety seeds, their policy is to give them to farmers.

"I think farmers have already paid for the seeds through my salary and research costs," he says.


David Dechant wasn't always opposed to transgenic crops. But when reports of lost markets, consumer rejection, and possible safety issues appeared in the media, he began to change his mind. He saw it as part of the corporatization of agriculture and the associated loss of family farmers.

"They say gmos are going to be another revolution like tractors were," he says. "But as far as I know, no one was rejecting food grown by use of tractors."