WASHINGTON - Farmers aren't giving up on genetically engineered crops despite misgivings of some consumers. Producers planted less biotech corn this year, but they're growing more gene-altered soybeans and cotton than ever, a government survey shows.
Farmers are planting 19.9 million acres of altered corn this year, down from about 25 million acres last year, according to the Agriculture Department survey of farmers.
Some farmers worry about being able to sell gene-altered corn in Europe and other overseas markets, and others planted less biotech seed because they aren't so worried about insect infestations this year, analysts said. The most popular and most controversial type of biotech corn is genetically modified to kill a major pest, the European corn borer.
"Last year these guys planted all these things thinking they would have a good or premium market, and they experienced the opposite," said commodity analyst Bill Biedermann of the agricultural researchers Allendale Inc.
About 40.2 million acres of genetically engineered soybeans have been planted this year, or 54 percent of the total crop, according to the farmer survey.
The department does not have a comparable estimate for last year. The Biotechnology Industry Organization has estimated, based on seed sales, that 35 million acres of genetically engineered soybeans were grown in 1999.
The soybeans are immune to Monsanto Co.'s powerful Roundup herbicide, making it easier for farmers to control yield-robbing weeds.
South Dakota farmer David Price started growing the crop two years ago and said he won't switch back to conventional seeds so long as he has a market for the genetically modified variety.
"It's like having a two-wheel-drive pickup. When that's all you had it was fine, but when you drive a four-wheel-drive, and you have to go back to a two-wheel-drive, it's like the end of the world," he said.
Plantings of biotech cotton, a crop that's grown for both fiber and vegetable oil, also are up sharply this year, the USDA survey found.
An estimated 61 percent of this year's crop, or about 9.5 million acres, is genetically engineered, compared with 8.2 million acres last year, or 55 percent of the 1999 crop. Some of the gene-altered cotton is toxic to insects, some is Roundup-tolerant, and some is both.
The acreage estimates of both biotech cotton and soybean are higher than what farmers had indicated they would plant in a USDA survey done earlier in the year. The corn estimate is about the same.
Europeans and Japanese have rejected biotech food, and polls indicate that support for the crops among American consumers has slipped over the past year. A few U.S. companies are turning down some gene-altered commodities, including Frito-Lay Inc. and McDonald's.
Federal regulators say the crops, which caught on with farmers in the late 1990s, are safe for humans and the environment. Opponents say too little is known about it.
Charles Margulis, an anti-biotech activist with the environmental group Greenpeace, said the USDA survey shows that farmer interest in biotechnology is leveling off.
The drop in biotech corn acreage "is clearly because of the export problems. Soybean growers are starting to feel that but haven't felt it as much," he said.
Growing gene-altered soybeans can actually cost farmers more than conventional varieties. The seed costs more and sometimes yields less, but weeds can be such a problem in growing soybeans that farmers say the extra expense is worth it.
"Everybody is so excited about them, especially this year," because heavy rains in parts of the Midwest have caused more weeds to grow, said Biedermann. He predicted demand for the seed will be greater next year.
On the Net:
USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service: http://www.nass.usda.gov
USDA's biotechnology site: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/biotechnology/
Biotechnology Industry Organization: http://www.bio.org