ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

28 August 2002

Sowing doubt
The Guardian, Wednesday August 28, 2002

Two farmers who have been experimenting with GM crops have been visiting Britain. But  Corky Jones from America and  Nhlela Phinias Gumede from South Africa recount experiences that differ as widely as the continents from which they come

Corky's story

I am a family farmer from Brownville, Nebraska. We're producing maize and soya beans on 2,800 acres, which here, in Britain, might sound a lot but it provides work for four families, and in the US it's not big. We have a brood cow herd, too, and I have three sons working with me. With all that land it should be a good, productive family farm. It's good for sure but it's not profitable.

We planted GM soya beans four years ago on the understanding that it would be profitable, that yields would be increased and that it would require much less chemicals. Well, the first year we tried it, it sounded good. GM wasn't even mentioned. What was mentioned was profitability. We planted the GM beans, we gave them one spray with the chemical and it worked.

We had good clean fields, but at harvest the yields were down. Being farmers, we know that many things control yields. We planted again, but this time we had to spray twice and, at harvest, the yields were down again.

We planted four years in a row and the yields were down and we were now having more and more problems controlling weeds. There has been an increase in chemicals, but we have seen no increase in income - plus, we have contaminated the soil and everyone else looks down on us and says, "Well, you can no longer furnish us with any type of product that has GM."

Many others have had the same experience. They have planted [GM] maize and soya beans and now they have problems. I have not spoken to anyone that has had an increase in yield; not one, and I get around quite a bit. More and more of them are experiencing problems and are using more chemicals after the first years.

Basically, no farmer was aware of GM. It meant nothing to the ordinary farmer - it was just another variety. We were the guinea pigs. We had no test plot to see what it was going to do.

Now the problem is that I don't know if, when I come back and plant conventional soya beans where I've had GM beans, the GM will come back out of the soil, or if it will contaminate the land.

I know soya beans and how the pollen drifts. It's not like maize. It drifts a long way and this is going to cause more problems than ever.

Contamination is really important and farmers need to understand that. Two years ago, Monsanto came to us and said that they were not liable for the drift if there is contamination. That, they said, is on the farmers' backs, which is an eye opener. I say there is no advantage to planting it. Not one. Yet they still boast about increased profits quarter after quarter, year after year - that's how they were explaining it to us farmers.

I do know that the cost of the seed and the chemicals is increasing, plus we can no longer plant our own seed that we save, like the soya beans we used to plant and save for the next year.

Now we cannot do that. Monsanto has taken 11 of my neighbours to court in Nebraska for doing exactly that - just saving our seed like we have always done and planting our own seed. The company claims that that is seed piracy, and are imposing huge fines and penalties.

Corky Jones was in Britain representing the American Agriculture Movement. He was paid to come by the Small and Family Farms Alliance and was interviewed by Adrian Arbib. More information at:

Nhlela's tale

I started growing cotton on the semi-arid Makhathini Flats, north of Durban on South Africa's east coast, in 1987. The 1,800sq km of land are home to thousands of families. I have 11 hectares; my wife has two. Almost 2,000 of us grow cotton on 6,000 hectares, so the average small holding is smaller than mine, but some are much bigger. Almost 75% of people are unemployed in this region. If you want to make money for a living here, you have to plant cotton.

When you plant ordinary cotton, you have to protect it with pesticides from damage by the bollworm pest. Growing cotton is hard, and controlling the bollworm is not easy. We walk great distances. If at the end of the day you walk through your field and see just one bollworm you are already out of control. By then it's too late, because the damage is already done. Without a good harvest we cannot pay back our debt. Every year, we always borrow money to buy seeds. But in 1997 when four or five of our farmers tried to plant Bt cotton in field trials, some of us were very scared. We had been promised good harvests before, so we needed evidence. Then we saw that it was free from bollworm damage.

But I was not so keen. I didn't try. I first tried it in 1998. My wife encouraged me to grow it. She said: "See those other farmers..." She planted her two acres with Bt and I planted six with conventional cotton. She made more than I did.

The first year was not good for me because I didn't realise that you still had to spray a little. When I complained, the representative from the seed company Delta & Pineland explained again. In 1998 and 1999, more farmers planted Bt cotton and the difference was clear.

The yields increased by up to a third, but Bt cotton also saved us time. One problem with cotton growing is that you have to walk all the way to the stores to buy the chemicals then walk to the river for the water, come back, then walk again to spray - 20km for each hectare. But with Bt, because you spray so little, you walk that much less - especially to the river and back. I now spend half my time with my wife and five children.

The second difference was the yield. My profits rose between 20% and 30%. It has made a big difference. Both my wife and I now have no problem with debt. Within four years of growing Bt cotton I have paid for a tractor and implements. I now employ more people to harvest the cotton and there's some spare cash after harvest time to buy school books for the children. Some of the children of the small-scale farmers used to miss out on meals.

Conventional varieties are still available and cost the same as before and I still plant them on two of my hectares. But not for much longer if Bt continues to give me increases in yield of up to one third.

Although Bt seed is up to twice as expensive as conventional cotton seeds, the increase in yield coupled with the decrease in spraying from eight times a season to just once or twice, means a net benefit of £60 per hectare.

That might only be the cost of a meal out to you, but to us it is the difference between not enough money to buy food throughout the year and enough profit to buy a tractor.

Nhlela Phinias Gumede came to Europe courtesy of Dutch group VILT (Vlaams Informatiecentrum for Land-en Tuinbouw) and travelled to Britain to talk to Monsanto staff. He was interviewed by John Vidal.
from the NGIN farming page

A 1998 opinion poll of approximately 800 farmers in Iowa, carried out by the Leopold Centre at Iowa State University, revealed that most (53%) chose [GM] RR beans because they thought they produced higher yields than non-GM varieties. But when actual data from their farms was analysed the opposite was found. "It is interesting to note....that increasing crop yields was cited by over half the farmers as the reason for planting GMO soybeans, yet yields were actually lower", reported researchers at the Leopold Centre.

Links to articles available:

USDA Report Exposes GM Crop Economics Myth

GM Crops Have Failed
Lower yields /Bt resistance and more pesticides /Reduced profits

Iowa State University agricultural economist, Michael Duffy, concludes that the primary beneficiaries of GM crops are not farmers but biotech companies.

RICS response to EU Commission biotech strategic vision The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors urges caution with GMOs

GM-free soybeans help boost Brazil‚s economy

Brazil GM-free corn exports seen at record high

Bt corn has lost farmers about $92 million
New report questions whether planting GMO (Bt) corn is worth the cost: less net profit, lower corn prices, and lost corn exports have all resulted  from GMO (Bt) corn


Prove you're GM-free, farmers told by Unilever

Farmers air Roundup Ready concerns
Volunteer GM canola (oilseed rape) a problem Farmers air Roundup Ready concerns

GMOs pose liability threats for farmers, new paper finds


"I've been a seed dealer for Monsanto for 18 years and this is the year we are going to have to part ways. They've forgotten that they have to serve farmers. I don't think they care who we've got to grow for. They're just concerned with making a fast buck." Steve Mattis, an Illinois farmer and seed dealer

"No, quality has not improved. I still believe the [GE cotton] seed is a major, major problem and I think a lot of people agree with that." William Dunavant Jr., chief executive of top U.S. cotton merchant Dunavant Enterprises, January 2002

"The promise was that you could use less chemicals and produce a greater yield.  But let me tell you none of this is true." Bill Christison, President of the US National Family Farm Coalition

" guys [US Government] created this monster; you clean it up. I have learned my lesson. No more GMO crops on this farm - ever." US farmer and GM seed salesman, Nebraska

"The only truly safe seed selection will be seed corn free of any genetic modification" A.E. Staley Manufacturing Co. in a letter to corn suppliers, November 2000

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