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Biotech revolution costing organic farmers; An AP California Farming

(Thursday, June 5, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Paul Elias, Associated Press: Fig Newmans cost more today than a year ago. That's because the organic cookie maker Newman's Own now buys its corn syrup from Austria, since it no longer trusts domestic corn syrup to be free of genetically modified organisms. The corn syrup from Austria, which bans the planting of genetically modified crops, costs the Santa Cruz company more and has forced it to hike its prices.

It's not alone.

The biotechnology revolution has always given organic farmers and their customers pause for concern. Now, it's actually costing them money.

The Organic Farming Research Foundation said about 11 percent of the farmers responding to a recent survey said they have been DNA-testing crops for the presence of genetically modified organisms. Others said they've undertaken more costly planting processes or have lost sales over concerns their organic crops were corrupted by genetically modified organisms.

It's all adding up to cost increases for organic foods, which command premium prices because of their promise to be free of biotechnology, pesticides and other unnatural tinkering. Worse, some U.S. farmers are losing sales to European competitors who can better ensure their crops are free of genetically engineered organisms.

"It's the bane of the organic industry," said Nell Newman of Newman's Own.

A tiny fraction of farmers, including the Rosmann Family Farm in Harlan, Iowa, said they've discovered trace amounts of genetically modified organisms cross-pollinated or otherwise mingled in with their organically grown crops. Those are potentially devastating discoveries, because organic consumers generally demand that the higher-priced food they buy be grown free of any biotechnological influence.

"We will be in trouble if we can't differentiate our product from the rest of the market," said Ron Rosmann. "It's a major concern."

Rosmann said an organic tortilla maker complained last year that about 1 percent of the farm's corn shipment was genetically modified. The tortilla maker used the corn, but wants the farm to do a better job this year of ensuring biotech-free shipments.

So Rosmann will harvest his corn later this year in hopes of avoiding cross-pollination with biotech varieties, which are being planted in increasing amounts in the United States. Last year, U.S. farmers planted genetically modified crops - mostly soy and corn - on 92 million acres.

In 1996, the first year genetically modified crops were commercially available, about 4.3 million acres were under biotechnology cultivation worldwide.

Most crops are engineered to be resistant to weed-killing chemicals like Roundup. Farmers who plant genetically engineered plants argue that their crops help reduce the amount of herbicides used in their fields, saving them money and better protecting the environment.

Organic farmers and their consumers argue the long-term health and environmental risks of biotechnology haven't been properly studied. As more biotech crops get planted, more consumers are turning to organic produce.

But Mother Nature and the way food gets to market are creating fundamental problems for organic farmers.

Nearly half the organic farmers polled by the Organic Farming Research Foundation said they fear the seeds they are buying are tainted with genetically modified organisms. Another 42 percent of responding farmers said they fear "pollen drift" from genetically modified crops will contaminate their harvests.

Rosmann's corn contamination highlights a growing and little publicized problem for organic farmers. Some of their crops have indeed been contaminated with genetically modified organisms, something only the most savvy consumer knows.

That's because new federal rules on food labeling allow products to contain up to 2 percent (Note- this is misprint. US Fed standards are 0 tolerance.) of genetically modified ingredients unintentionally mixed in with organic crops. Without genetic tests that cost more than $300 each, consumers can't be completely assured their organic products are 100 percent GMO free.

Meanwhile, the $10 billion-a-year U.S. organic food industry faces increasingly skeptical European customers who won't tolerate any percentage of genetically engineered crops.

"There's a lot of mental anguish," said Erica Walz of the Organic Farming Research Foundation.