Farmers Joining State Efforts Against Bioengineered Crops
By ANDREW POLLACK
New York Times
March 24, 2001
North Dakota is weighing a bill that would make it the first state to ban planting of a genetically modified crop, reflecting a surge of concern about such crops in legislatures around the country.
The North Dakota bill, which would impose a two-year moratorium on growing genetically modified wheat, is one of more than 40 state bills introduced this year that would regulate biotech crops or the labeling of foods made using genetic engineering.
"You have people at the state level trying to get these things passed because the federal government won't do it," said Andy Zimmerman, who works with the Green Party in New York, where a bill has been introduced to ban the planting of genetically modified crops for five years.
But the North Dakota bill, which has already passed the state's House of Representatives, signals another trend as well ”” that concern about genetically engineered crops is now coming not only from environmental and consumer groups but from farmers, who have generally supported such crops.
Although virtually all the state bills proposed in past years failed, the North Dakota bill has made headway precisely because its main backers are some of the state's own farmers, not the usual biotechnology opponents. While many of these farmers say they are not in principle opposed to bioengineered foods, they fear losing the ability to export their crops to Europe, Japan and other places where consumers are shunning such food and where governments strictly regulate it.
"We don't want to lose the ability to sell our wheat abroad," said Todd Leake, a farmer from near Grand Forks and one of the strongest champions of the North Dakota measure. "Most of the economy in North Dakota is agriculture," Mr. Leake noted, "and wheat is the mainstay of that."
To some extent, the North Dakota bill is merely symbolic; the moratorium would expire on July 31, 2003, probably before any genetically modified seed would even come to market. And the bill does not mention enforcement.
Still, that has not prevented Monsanto, which is developing genetically modified wheat, and some farm groups opposed to the bill from putting up a stiff fight. So while the bill breezed through the state's House last month by a vote of 68 to 29, its passage in the Senate is far from assured.
In other states as well, biotechnology and food companies, not eager to deal with a patchwork of laws, have lobbied heavily against some bills, say legislators who proposed them. Many other bills, however, fail simply for lack of support.
Many farmers like genetically engineered crops because they contain useful traits, like pest resistance. But critics say that they have not been studied thoroughly enough to rule out health problems like allergies or unanticipated ecological effects, including the killing of monarch butterflies.
The first genetically altered crops ”” herbicide-resistant soybeans and pest-resistant corn and cotton ”” were snapped up by farmers. About half of the soybeans and a quarter of the corn grown in the United States last year were genetically modified. And many farmers, including some in North Dakota, are continuing to grow these crops, despite a rise in consumer resistance.
But genetically modified crops like wheat that are not already established are having a harder time catching on because farmers and food companies fear they will not be able to sell them.
Genetically altered potatoes never gained much of a foothold after major potato processors and fast-food companies indicated they would not buy them. Monsanto is discontinuing its potato product. And farmers in the main tobacco-growing states are refusing to grow crops that are genetically modified to reduce nicotine. The farmers and some cigarette companies worry that smokers, particularly in Europe and Japan, might shun modified cigarettes, even as they accept the risk of cancer.
"The provincial plantation office denied reports of the seed's arrival..but..a Russian Ilyusin transport plane [was seen] unloading the seed in the airport's military area. The wide-bodied plane... was tightly guarded, and reporters and photographers were barred from approaching the plane. Members of the Indonesian Air Force guarding the area said that reporters must back off for security reasons." THE JAKARTA POST March 17, 2001 Genetically modified cotton seed arrives in Makassar from S. Africa