The revelations in late April that McDonald's, Burger King, Frito-Lay, and Proctor & Gamble are eliminating genetically engineered (GE) potatoes is the latest blow to US farmers who are getting burned by a technology that has promised everything and delivered little.
Numerous missteps by the biotech industry have repeatedly hurt farmers who are already struggling. First, the biotech industry aggressively marketed GE crops to US farmers before many varieties had been approved in Europe. Predictably, the Europeans raised questions regarding environmental and health impacts that have yet to be answered and subsequently placed a moratorium on new approvals and required labeling. The biotech industry told US farmers that the European uproar would blow over. If anything, however, the European market has closed further.
Promises that the controversy over GE crops would be contained to Europe proved empty when several Asian countries recently stepped up their regulatory oversight. Japan announced recently that it would begin screening food coming into the country for genetically engineered content and is aggressively looking for GE-free crops.
The last bastion of the biotech industry has been US food companies which have publicly embraced the technology -- at least in the US. Many US companies, such as Coca-Cola, Philip Morris, Kellogg, and Campbell, have taken steps to go GE-free in other countries, but not in the US.
Now even US markets are starting to close. Gerber, Heinz, and Enfamil have announced they will not use GE ingredients in their baby food and baby formula. The Gerber announcement was a particularly stinging blow for farmers because Gerber is owned by biotech seed giant Novartis. Then, earlier this year, Frito-Lay asked its contract farmers not to plant GE corn. Most recently McDonald's, Burger King, Frito-Lay, and Proctor & Gamble have told their suppliers that they don't want GE potatoes.
Contrary to processors and retailers' official position that obtaining GE-free crops is virtually impossible and too expensive, US food companies are working behind the scenes to develop a system to ensure GE-free ingredients for the future. This includes telling suppliers that they will not purchase GE crops and establishing testing systems to guarantee that their products are GE-free.
Given the increasing unreliability of available markets, it's not surprising that US farmers are backing away from this technology. The USDA and other farm organizations estimate that farmers will reduce their planting of biotech crops by up to 25 percent this year.
But questions about marketability are not the only reason farmers are turning away from GE seeds. This technology has changed the face of agriculture. For many farmers it has shifted the balance of power off the farm.
Farmers lease and thus do not own genetically engineered seeds manufactured by biotech companies. But according to the biotech industry, farmers should be held liable for damages that occur to the environment or neighboring farms. Conventional and organic farmers are vulnerable to economic losses from genetic contamination from neighboring farms growing GE crops. Unusual for a legal product, neither government or private insurance companies will write liability policies to insure GE products.
In order to use genetically engineered seed, farmers must sign a contract stating that they will not use any of their harvest for seed or save unused seed for planting the following year. The contract stipulates that the seed company has the right to inspect the farmer's land anytime, if they suspect that seed has been saved. But pollen from GE crops can drift to non-GE crops and cause farmers to be falsely accused of saving seed. Already, several hundred North American farmers have been sued by biotechnology companies for allegedly saving seed.
Additionally, Roundup Ready soybeans manufactured by Monsanto can cost farmers 25 to 50 percent more than regular seeds due to technology fees. US Department of Agriculture field trial data and farmers' reports indicate that GE crops do not result in increased yields and may actually result in fewer bushels per acre than their conventional counterparts. There have been several class action lawsuits filed by farmers when the GE seeds just haven't worked as advertised -- in some cases the seeds didn't even germinate.
In difficult economic times, farmers are vulnerable to the hype of a new technology. Contrary to the rosy assurances of the biotech industry, the volatility and unpredictable nature of genetically engineered crops has left farmers with a bad taste.
Gabriela Flora is an associate on agricultural biotechnology at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Minneapolis, Minn.; phone 612-870-3416.