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No hurry to grow RR wheat

Editor's note: Links to some of the other CropChoice commentaries and stories from this week and last follow this piece. -- RS

By David Dechant
Colorado farmer

(Sunday, Nov. 9, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- With wheat harvest coming to a close on my familyís farm in Colorado, my thoughts keep drifting back to past harvests, most notably, 1973, when we enjoyed the rare occurrence of having both a good price and a good yield in the same year. Thatís when the Soviet Unionís massive wheat purchases caused wheat prices to double, almost triple, over the summer. There was a lot of euphoria out in farm country and everyone was saying that Americaís farmers were going to become prosperous by feeding the world. For me, just having graduated from high school and wanting to farm, the future never seemed brighter.

Now, thirty years later, we are still being told that we are going to feed the world. However, instead of Ag secretary Earl Butz telling us to "plant fencerow to fencerow," to accomplish that, current secretary Ann Veneman promotes the Biotech companies' "Field of Dreams"1 , saying "grow GMOs and they will come." But our customers tell us just the opposite.

Wheat exports have long been stagnant and the current $2.65 local wheat price is far less than what my family sold wheat for in 1973. Adjusting for inflation, wheat is cheaper than ever. It is very hard to fall for the "we need GMOs or else we wonít be able to feed the world" myth. If our current non-GMO grain surpluses donít get to the hungry, how are GMO grain surpluses to get to them?

In any case, how will the introduction of Roundup Ready wheat affect the worldís farmers, assuming it be widely adopted and accepted?

A few years ago, some North Dakota State University economists did a study looking into the impact RR wheat would have on both farmer and consumer welfare. Itís called "Modeling International Trade Impacts Of Genetically Modified Wheat Introductions." It dealt with several scenarios making different assumptions as to which countries would produce RR wheat and which countries would accept it. In all scenarios, wheat farmers around the world, collectively, become worse off to the tune of US $1.6 to $5.6 billion, even in the absence of a tech fee for RR seed! Those promoting RR wheat conveniently overlook this bottom line, the untold story.

Third world farmers are already upset with us enough as it is; blaming US and EU subsidies for the low crop prices they receive. So why do we need to adopt technology that will not only make us worse off, but them, too? If RR wheat increases farmersí yields ten percent, like Monsanto says, the increased production will keep wheat prices low, even if the US and EU do away with their despised subsidies.

This isnít the only study showing farmers become worse off after widescale adoption of a GMO crop. In "Roundup Ready Soybeans and Welfare Effects in the Soybean Complex," Iowa State University researchers say, regarding Monsantoís claim that RR soybeans will yield 5% more, "The scenario of b0.05 2 generates large welfare losses for producers for almost every scenario Ö These massive welfare losses for the producers are due to the price decline that is associated with the supply shift due to the yield effect."

And even if RR soybeans donít yield more, the fact that more acres get planted to soybeans because they are easier to grow will still affect farmers everywhere negatively. As Monsanto Argentinaís Carlos Popik boasts, Argentina added an extra five million hectares of soybeans just for that reason.

By no means should we reject any new technology simply because farmers may become worse off after widescale adoption, especially if consumers benefit. But, by all means, we should hold GMO promoters accountable for their claims that farmers benefit. Moreover, they should have to show us just how surplus GMO crops would get to the hungry when surplus non-GMO crops do not or how lower wheat prices will translate into lower prices for consumers, which is usually not the case, especially in the US.

In the end, we need be in no hurry to plant RR wheat. My family, like most still growing wheat, has survived a century of attrition in the number of farmers. We have been growing wheat long before there ever was a Monsanto Company and, with a little luck, will still be growing wheat long after Monsanto is gone.

The clock is ticking away at the lifespan of Monsantoís patents, for sure. But thatís not our problem. We would be far better off to get the clock ticking towards the end of an inequitable food distribution system that lets people go hungry in times of surplus and a marketing system which penalizes, rather than rewards, farmers for doing something socially desirable, growing a surplus of food. RR wheat does nothing to solve these problems.

David Dechant
The author is 48 years old and farms with his father and brother near Ft. Lupton, Colorado [in view of the Rocky Mountains]. They farm 3,000 acres of irrigated ground, with alfalfa as the main crop, and corn, wheat, and malting barley being grown in rotation. The alfalfa and corn is sold to local dairies and feedlots. They also farm 1,200 acres of dryland, and wheat is the main crop on that. He has a test plot of sunflowers this year and may go to growing them on part of the dryland acreage. His brother runs about 150 beef cows, which are out on native range during the summer and graze volunteer wheat, cornstalks, and alfalfa stubble on the irrigated fields in the winter.

David is also secretary of the American Corn Growers Association. It has a policy of not accepting any donations or other freebies from agribusiness.

1 an American movie. Ed
2 b0.05 refers to the 5% yield gain as claimed by Monsanto

CropChoice editor's note: David Dechant wrote this commentary in July and it was published in the November/December 2003 hard copy issue (No. 53) of Landmark, a publication of Farmers World Network ( http://www.fwn.org.uk/ ).

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