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Losing Taste For Genetic Crops

Farmers plan to cut back on genetically engineered crops this year even as they intend to plant record soybean crops and boost corn and cotton acreage, the government said Friday.

Farmers in major corn-producing states indicate they will plant 19 percent of their corn acreage this year to a biotech variety that is toxic to an insect pest, according to an Agriculture Departmentsurvey conducted in early March. That is down from 25 percent in 1999.

This year's total corn acreage is estimated at 77.9 million acres, up 1 percent from 1999.

Some 52 percent of this year's soybean acreage is expected to be a biotech variety that is resistant to herbicides, compared to about 57 percent last year. Plantings of biotech cotton are projected to decline from 55 percent last year to 48 percent in 2000.

"Producers are just trying to protect themselves. The industry seems to be saying they want less biotech and that's what their interest is, going to where the industry is telling them to go," said Don Roose, an analyst with U.S. Commodities Inc.

Total cotton plantings are expected to reach 15.6 million acres this year, an increase of 5 percent from last year, and the second-largest acreage since 1962. Sugarbeet acreage is expected to rise by 1 percent to 1.6 million.

Wheat acreage is expected to total 61.7 million acres, down 2 percent from 1999.

This year's projected soybean acreage is up 1 percent from last year. Soybeans have become increasingly popular with farmers in recent years because of federal price supports that make the crop more profitable than some other commodities, according to analysts.

Analysts had expected the reduction in biotech corn because of resistance to the corn in overseas markets and a decline in borer populations.

There are concerns the engineered corn could be toxic to monarch butterflies and that corn borers could develop resistance to it.

Biotech food has met consumer resistance in Europe and Asia that is trickling into the United States. Snack-food maker Frito-Lay Inc. notified its contract farmers earlier this year that it would no longer would buy biotech corn.

USDA's projected decline in biotech plantings this year "probably represents a turning point for the technology, a recognition that the U.S. can't force this down the Europeans' throats and that the Europeans aren't going to buy it if they don't want to," said Margaret Mellon of the Union for Concerned Scientists.

"Farmers are concerned. ... It's difficult to grow something you can't sell," said Gary Goldberg, chief executive officer of the American Corn Growers Association.

Seed companies have insisted that demand for biotech varieties is in line with year. Monsanto Co.'s biotech sales are "flat to marginally better" than last year, said spokesman Dan Vrakis.

Delivering remarks Wednesday to the opening of the Advisory Committee on Biotechnology, Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman said, "I am a strong believer in the potential for agricultural biotechnology," but added, "We as a society must sort through some very complex issues to make informed decisions about policy, programs and initiatives that are in the best interests of all involved consumers, farmers, processors, everyone in the food chain."

According to the UCC, in addition to corn, cotton, soybeans and sugarbeet, American farmers are allowed to use biologically-altered seed for flax, papaya, potato, squash and tomato