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Reports show biotech could mean $1 billion per year for European farmers

Editor's note: Before getting to the story about this study, one should pause to consider the comments of a farmer. Number one, the biotechnology companies paid for this study. But let's assume the claim that genetically modified corn would increase EU corn production by 4.2 billion pounds, which amounts to about 75 million bushels. If that happened, why should groups like the National Corn Growers Association rejoice? "That's 75 million less bushels of corn the EU would not have to buy. The idiots doing these studies conveniently ignore the price depressing effects of additional production," the farmer told me. -- RS

(Tuesday, July 1, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- St. Louis Post Dispatch, 06/25/03: Farmers in a dozen European countries could boost their net income by $1 billion a year -- if their governments would allow planting of genetically modified corn, sugarbeets and potatoes, according to a study released Tuesday.

The report -- prepared by the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy -- puts dollars and cents to the political and cultural debate raging over the use of genetically modified, or GM, crops. It was made public during the Biotechnology Industry Organization's 10th annual meeting.

"This is the first study that explains how biotechnology could impact Europe," said Leonard Gianessi, program director for NCFAP, a non-profit research organization based here.

While the organization does not advocate a particular position or course of action, Gianessi said, "this technology might give the Europeans some options they'll want to explore."

The United States has accepted corn, soybean, canola and cotton crops that are engineered to resist certain pests, diseases and applications of glyphosate herbicide. Farmers have planted them on millions of acres -- and report that they reduce the need to apply insect- and weed-killers, as well as boost yield.

Yet the European Union has balked. Last month, the United States filed a dispute with the World Trade Organization, claiming the EU's five-year moratorium on accepting GM crops unfairly blocks exports from American farmers.

Monsanto Co., based in Creve Coeur, is the world's leading provider of genetic traits and GM seeds. It provided funding for the study, along with competitor Syngenta AG and the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

The study took an initial look at corn, sugarbeet and potato crops, because GM varieties are already developed and have been tested or used in European fields. It used data culled from universities and researchers based on the continent, Gianessi said.

"Our data is their data, so there will be general agreement that we got it right," he explained.

A final report, due next year, will estimate the economic impact to European farmers of planting 15 different GM crops that are still under development, including tomatoes, wheat and rice. And Gianessi estimates that the economic benefit will double.

The financial gain stems from applying lower amounts of insect- and weed-killers to crops, as well as from improved yield. Among the results:

If farmers in the top corn-producing countries -- France, Italy, Spain and Germany -- would use seed engineered to resist the European corn borer pest, they could boost yield by 4.2 billion pounds and apply 117,000 pounds less pesticide. As a result, their annual net income would grow by $249 million.

Sugarbeets are plagued by weeds, forcing farmers to spray a variety of herbicides four to five times a year. But if they planted sugarbeets that can stand up to broad-acting glyphosate -- which Monsanto sells as Roundup -- they could use 4.9 million pounds less herbicide overall, boost yield by 11.1 billion pounds and raise net income by $390 million.

"Sugarbeet farmers are chomping at the bit for this," said Gianessi, who has shared the results with some growers' groups.

Perhaps the most compelling case is for GM potatoes that can ward off a fungus, late blight, which caused the 1845 Irish potato famine. Scientists at Wageningen University in the Netherlands are close to commercializing the technology that solves a 158-year-old problem, Gianessi said.

European potato growers now spray chemical fungicides eight to 14 times a year to ward off the disease -- and still lose about 2 percent of the crop.

Using the GM potato each year could decrease chemical use by 16.5 million pounds, increase yield by 1.9 billion pounds and raise farmers' net income by $417 million.

The data are compelling, but many question whether European consumers would accept biotech potatoes that even Americans have turned down.

A few years ago, Monsanto commercialized potatoes engineered to resist the Colorado potato beetle and the leaf-roll virus. But processors and fast-food chains refused them, worried that consumers wouldn't buy in. So Monsanto shelved the product.

Harvey Glick, director of scientific affairs, said GM potatoes "were looking very promising." But Monsanto had several other crops under development at the same time, and instead chose to pursue sales of the big cash crops -- corn, cotton, soybeans and canola.

The result, Gianessi said, is that the United States and European Union "share the same problems. Our growers are as frustrated as their growers."

Experts say Americans likely will accept GM table foods once they are engineered with benefits for consumers, rather than growers. And Monsanto is developing products with taste, quality or nutritional benefits, such as grain fortified with beneficial Omega-3 fatty acid.

In Europe, GM crop acceptance is still very much up in the air, Gianessi said. "The European Union is really considering which way they're going to go."