Biotech Revolution Costs Organic Farmers
By PAUL ELIAS
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - 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, Calif., 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 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
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
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 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
Most crops are engineered to be resistant to weed-killing chemicals.
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
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.
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.
On the Net:
Organic Farming Research Foundation: http://www.ofrf.org
Thanks to the Associated Press
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