Signs of a biotech backlash?
Genetically modified seeds are still popular, but farmers question the high costs and the rise of herbicide-resistant weeds.
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Most farmers grumbled but stuck to biotech seeds anyway, though many refused to buy the latest and most expensive version that Monsanto was pushing.Skip to next paragraph
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"A lot of it, to be perfectly honest, is herd mentality," says John Gilbert, a farmer in Iowa Falls, Iowa, who regularly plants conventional seeds. "They believe Monsanto when they say it's going to yield more."
Still, the rapid increase in the percentage of US farm acres planted with biotech crops has slowed. It rose only 1 percent last year, from 85 percent to 86 percent, the smallest increase since 2001. In Illinois, the percentage of acres planted with biotech corn dropped from 84 percent to 82 percent; biotech soybeans fell from 90 percent to 89 percent.
"The technology has really been hyped a lot," says Doug Gurian-Sherman, author of a 2009 study for the Union of Concerned Scientists that concluded that yield increases have come almost entirely from traditional plant breeding. "Even on a shoestring, conventional breeding way outperforms genetic engineering."
Monsanto doesn't dispute that much of the increase in yields is due to conventional plant breeding. But biotech traits have helped "by protecting yields that would have otherwise been lost due to insects and weeds," says Monsanto spokeswoman Mimi Ricketts.
Even if conventional seeds can produce as well as biotech seed, farmers are finding it harder to find them. That's because most crop improvements produced by traditional plant breeding are sold to farmers only in combination with biotech traits.
Probably a graver challenge is the spread of herbicide-resistant weeds. The problem is worst in Southern cotton fields, where thousands of acres are infested. But resistant weeds like horsetail and giant ragweed are now appearing across the Midwest, too.
Experts say farmers created the problem by relying too heavily on Roundup and the biotech crops that Monsanto developed to use with Roundup.
"The first seven or eight years it was the greatest thing since sliced bread," says Bill Johnson, a weed specialist at Purdue University, who called Roundup "arguably the most rapidly adopted agricultural innovation ever." Now, he says, "We're going to see the value of it erode over time."
Next year Monsanto says it plans to offer farmers more seed options and lower prices for those who want to try out its latest varieties. As for Mr. Taylor, his spring gamble to plant ordinary hybrid corn seemed to be paying off. "We won't know till harvest," he says. "But it doesn't look like a bad decision."