GE industry breaking farmers backs

A new report about farming in North America gives the real dirt on genetic engineering

Feature story - September 17, 2002
Farmers, consumers, even people in developing countries are under intense pressure to accept genetic engineering as an improvement on nature. But a new report documenting 10 years of experience by North American farmers shows that virtually every beneficial claim for GE crops has been exaggerated. Genetically engineered crops have been an economic disaster in the US and Canada. Only time will tell whether consumers will also be at the losing end of the GE takeover of our food supply.

Severe problems with GE crops has led to over 200 groups representing farmers and the organic sector in the US and Canada to call for a ban on the introduction of the next major proposed GE food crop, GE wheat.

Making a living as a farmer is a tough job. My family had a small farm and each year we just scraped by after paying the mortgage on the farm, loans on the farm equipment and paying off all the bills for supplies. Summers weren't spent playing at camp with the other kids, we worked from early morning until well after dark. But even then, my family didn't have it so hard.

Back then no one had ever heard of genetic engineering, and we did not have to worry whether our neighbours were growing genetically engineered (GE) crops that might contaminate our fields, or whether we would be able to sell the season's harvest in a new climate of consumer concern.

Tom and Gail Wiley have a family farm in North Dakota, a bit bigger, but not that much different than the one I grew up on. But they have seen problems my family could never have imagined.

The family sows about 1000 acres of soya every year. Although they were offered GE seeds, Tom says he is a conventional non-GE farmer. "I have not seen any reason to go the GE route. Anyway, the system they touted seemed to good to be true - and that is enough to make anyone suspicious," says Tom.

But the choice Tom and his family made was taken away from him two years ago.

In 2000 Tom landed a good contract worth US$10,000 for food grade soya in Japan. Tom was about to deliver the contract when he was told that there was a problem. The agent found that their soya was contaminated by 1.37 percent with GE. The test was repeated, it was correct. He lost the contract and an important GE-free market in Asia.

The Wiley family are not alone in North America. Many farmers who struggle to make a good living in this tough industry are seeing the effects of 10 years of commercial growing of GE crops in North America.

Evidence published in the UK Soil Association's new report, Seeds of Doubt, shows that virtually every benefit claimed for GE crops has not occurred. Instead farmers using GE seeds are reporting lower yields, continuing dependency on herbicides and pesticides, loss of access to international markets and a loss of profitability.

The Soil Association estimates that GE soya, maize and oilseed rape could have cost the US economy US$12 billion since 1999 in farm subsidies, lower crop prices, loss of major export orders and product recalls.

While times are getting tougher for farmers, ultimately, consumers are also on the losing end.

Little gain, lots of pain

One year of gain and three years of pain, that's how Canadian farmer Chris Dzisiak describes his experience with GE oilseed rape or canola.

GE companies don't promise any benefits to consumers of current commercial GE crops, but they do promise farmers improved yields, and less need for herbicides and pesticides. But like many other farmers, Chris learned that is not necessarily so.

Chris of Dauphin, Manitoba poured thousands of dollars into an expensive chemical battle after growing a GE canola for just one year. The canola plants persistently grew back, and he had to use stronger chemicals and more aggressive methods to try to keep the canola out of his subsequent crops. In the end he also ended up losing more money as his other crops were also affected.

Chris expects the problems to continue this year and says he will never grow another Roundup Ready crop again. "I certainly didn't save myself any money and I certainly didn't save myself any time."

Darnit, why won’t you yield?

GE crops were marketed to farmers promising significant increases in crops, thus more money for farmers. After six years of commercial growing, there is little evidence to prove this claim, and the information that is available generally shows that these claims have been greatly exaggerated.

One Monsanto subsidiary Jacob Hartz Seed Company claimed that their Roundup Ready soya seeds were "top quality, disease resistant, high yielding seed." But the Mississippi state court ruled in September 2001 that they were responsible for the reduced yields obtained by Mississippi farmer Newell Simrall, and awarded US$165,742 in damages to him.

The US Department of Agriculture also found that GE herbicide tolerant maize "did not increase yields," and a University of Saskatchewan study revealed that GE canola yields fell 7.5 percent short of conventional canola.

Many industry supporters are now backing away from earlier claims about higher yields, and the US Department of Agriculture has concluded that at present genetic engineering was most likely "not to increase maximum yields."

More promises...

"In most regions where GE Roundup Ready beans have been planted for more than three years, herbicide reliance continues to increase as a result of the combination of weed shifts and resistances."

- Dr. Charles Benbrook, agronomist, Idaho, 2000

But what of industry claims that GE crops would reduce agrochemical use and make managing pests and weeds easier?

US Department of Agriculture researchers found that herbicide use with Roundup Ready soya is greater than for conventional varieties, and rising. Similar trends were revealed for other important GE crops, especially as new weed problems emerge. As for pesticides the results have been mixed, but some researchers fear pesticide use may increase as insects develop resistance to the toxins engineered into GE crops like cotton and maize.

Wild promises too

"With Asgrow soybeans, profitability runs wild."

- from an advertisement for Roundup Ready soybeans in a US farming magazine

Times have been tough for farmers in North America, and when GE crops held forth the golden carrot of increased profits, most were understandably eager to bite.

Unfortunately, GE soya and maize have made the situation worse. Some farmers have been able to cut costs and increase yields, but most have found that technology fees, lower market prices, lower yields and higher use of chemicals for certain GE crops have offset any savings.

"Farmers are really starting to question the profit enhancing ability of products that seem to be shutting them out of markets worldwide," says Cory Ollikka from Canada's National Farmers Union, which has called for a moratorium on GE crops.

The Soil Association report shows that exports to Europe plunged a shocking 99.4 percent from 1996 to 2001 following the introduction of GE maize, losing US$2 billion in trade.

In the US, "Were it not for the...income support payments...that act as a kind of limited economic damage control system...farmers would be feeling a much greater negative impact from the export sales lost as a result of GMOs [genetically modified organisms]," said Dan McGuire from the American Corn Growers Association.

Help, I’m locked in!

So if a farmer believes a GE crop won't make his life easier or more profitable, he can choose not to grow them, right? Not necessarily.

Non-GE farmers, whether they wish to choose conventional or organic methods, are finding it tough to elude the voracious grasp of genetic engineering companies.

Perhaps the single greatest reason is contamination. GE crops have been found to pollute non-GM crops all the way from field to plate. Pollution means GE-free seeds are harder and harder to find. Seed catalogues are getting thinner, and genetic engineering companies have been buying up leading seed companies. In many areas, seed companies and organic farmers have been forced to completely stop growing certain non-GE crops.

Where’s the logic?

Farmers who learn all the facts on GE crops seem increasingly wary. So why would agrochemical giants like Monsanto push questionable products on present and future customers?

The answer swirls around Monsanto's earnings from its herbicide Roundup, more properly known as glyphosate. Monsanto has built its fortunes on the stuff for the past 30 years, making US$2.8 billion in 2000 alone. But Monsanto's US patent on glyphosate ran out in 2000.

Monsanto has partially eluded competition and made up shortfalls through its technology agreements from Roundup Ready crops. These bind farmers to use Monsanto's own brand of glyphosate. It's still more cynical that while telling farmers that these crops would reduce their use of herbicide, Monsanto increased its glyphosate production to coincide with the release of its Roundup Ready crops, and lobbied for higher levels of this herbicide to be allowed on soybeans.

Lawsuits sprouting up like GE weeds

As if all that weren't bad enough, "Farmers are being sued for having GMOs on their property that they did not buy, do not want, will not use and cannot sell," says Tom who lost the Japanese soya contract because of GE contamination.

GE companies don't seem to care that the farmers did not intend to grow the GE plants that arrive in their fields through contamination. This brave new world of GE agriculture is populated by intimidating company investigators, litigious payment demands, and gag orders that muzzle farmers' complaints. Monsanto has even set up a "snitch line".

The now-famous case of Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser illustrates that whether the farmer intentionally grew unlicensed seeds or had their crop contaminated is actually considered irrelevant under Canadian law!

But the economically disastrous consequences of contamination have also driven North American organic farmers to court.

In the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, a class action lawsuit has been launched against Monsanto and Aventis for the destruction of nearly the whole organic canola sector. Little wonder that the North American farming community is now actively opposed to the planned introduction of GE wheat.

Liability is a thorny issue. "If I contaminate my neighbour's property, I am held responsible,"says Tom. "Farmers need legal protection to ensure that if the biotech industry contaminates their crops with GMOs, the industry is held responsible."

Meanwhile Aventis, whose GE Starlink corn illegally entered the human food chain, is being sued by every quarter - by farmers, Taco Bell restaurants, and even ordinary consumers.

If rats won’t eat them, should we?

One of the stranger findings of the report is that rats may be fussier than humans when it comes to eating these products.

"A student placed two bales of maize in a rodent infested barn. One was Roundup Ready and the other was conventional. Apparently the rodents would not touch the Roundup Ready crop."

The main use of commercialised GE crops in North America is for animal feed in the meat industry. But there were almost no feeding trials before GE crops went into commercial production. Yet farmers have reported odd stories of cattle, pigs and even elk choosing conventional crops over GE crops.

Unfortunately that is not a choice many consumers can easily make. North Americans have been consuming GE foods for years.

Look at the ingredient list on any packaged food in your cupboard. Any food with ingredients from corn, soy, canola, or cottonseed - including soy and corn derivatives such as lecithin, soy oil, soy proteins, corn syrup and cornstarch - is likely to be made with GMOs in North America. Soy derivatives alone are found in 60 to 70 percent of all processed food.

There is no evidence that genetic engineering is safe. We are currently in a situation where GE companies are trying to turn the burden of proof on its head, in which their risky technologies are deemed innocent until proven dangerous. There have been no studies on the long-term effects of releasing genetically modified organisms into our environment or people's diets.

Worse than that, like many North American farmers, North American consumers are not given the choice.

While in Europe global food companies favour the consumer's right to know by labelling GE-food and removing GE ingredients from their products, these companies force-feed GE foods to consumers in other parts of the world without any labelling.

Read the Soil Association's summary of the report.