Signs of a biotech backlash?

Genetically modified seeds are still popular, but farmers question the high costs and the rise of herbicide-resistant weeds.

Dan Gill / AP / File
A Missouri farmer held genetically engineered soybean seeds before planting in the summer of 2008.
Richard Mertens
Today, farmers like Paul Taylor of Esmond, Ill. are finding they can sometimes save money by planting traditional varieties rather than the costlier genetically modified types.

On the eve of planting, Paul Taylor, a corn-and-soybean farmer in north central Illinois, made a quick decision.

The signs were auspicious: The sun was shining, the air was warm, the fields were dry. So he returned the 50-pound bags of expensive, genetically modified seed corn that were waiting in his shed and planted instead ordinary hybrid seeds, the kind his grandfather might have sown. An early start and lower seed costs could pay off at harvesttime.

"I'm going to roll the dice on it," he said after planting.

Even as most farmers embrace genetically modified crops, some producers are casting a critical eye on the technology. Corn Belt farmers complain loudly about the soaring cost of seed. The federal government is investigating the industry for anticompetitive practices. Farmers are grappling increasingly with weeds that have grown resistant to Roundup, an herbicide widely used with genetically modified crops, and genetic contamination of conventional crops.

"If you've got your conventional seed right next to your neighbor's [biotech] seeds, the pollen flies," says John Schmitt, a corn-and-soybean farmer in Quincy, Ill., who had to sell a third of his conventional corn at lower prices last year because of contamination. "It's nature."

Even the US Supreme Court has gotten involved, lifting an injunction against the planting of genetically modified alfalfa.

There's little evidence so far that farmers have turned against genetically modified crops. The most popular trait, tolerance to Roundup, allows them to kill weeds easily without harming their crop. Other genes enable crops like corn essentially to manufacture their own insecticide. This saves farmers the trouble and expense of applying insecticide to their fields when a problem arises.

But a rising number of farmers are raising questions about the technology, if only because they resent the rising costs. Last year the price of corn seed rose 32 percent; soybean seeds went up 24 percent.

"There just isn't competition out there," says Craig Griffieon, a farmer in Ankeny, Iowa, who shuns biotech crops.

The US Justice Department is looking into complaints of anticompetitive practices in the seed business, where seed giants like Monsanto have raised prices, bought up or pushed aside smaller seed companies, and emphasized genetic engineering over traditional plant breeding.

Most farmers grumbled but stuck to biotech seeds anyway, though many refused to buy the latest and most expensive version that Monsanto was pushing.

"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."

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