I recently met with members of Japan’s Seikatsu Club Consumers’ Cooperative (SCCC) in my office in San Francisco to discuss how to overcome the difficulties of obtaining certain non-GM products for its 1 million members. The 14-person delegation — comprised of pig, chicken, cattle, and dairy producers for the co-op — came to the U.S. in search of stable supplies of non-GM corn to feed its animals.
Like the 600 or so other co-ops that flourish across Japan — providing food to more than 22 million people nationwide — SCCC is dedicated to offering wholesome, non-GM foods at reasonable prices. Unfortunately, as my visitors explained, it is becoming increasingly difficult to purchase non-GM feed corn, so they traveled to the U.S. to meet with Midwestern farmers in hopes of securing feed contracts.
Although supplies of non-GM feed corn have decreased in recent years, there is renewed hope for those not wanting to consume foods from GM-fed livestock and poultry. Research suggests that the trend among U.S. farmers to grow GM livestock feed is decreasing.
This reversal began with the comeback of conventionally grown soybeans such as those developed at the University of Missouri Delta Research Center. Agronomists there are leading the charge to develop new, non-GM, conventional varieties for livestock feed in response to an upsurge in farmer demand for non-patented, non-GM soybean seeds. Their newly developed Jake and Stoddard soybeans not only exhibit an adaptability to different soil types, but they also resist cyst and root knot nematodes, pests that have become problematic for farmers ever since Monsanto’s Roundup Ready GM seed became the dominant soybean planted.
The resurgence in farmer demand for non-GM soybeans is driven by economic necessity. As costs associated with growing GM soy have risen sharply, yields have stagnated and even fallen since the widespread introduction of RR seeds. All the while, the price of Roundup weed killer, required to be used with Monsanto’s GM RR seeds, has steadily climbed from $15 a gallon to $40 or even $50 per gallon. Weed resistance to Roundup has upped the need to increase both the volume and toxicity of agrochemicals used by farmers to keep weeds in check. Add to this the growing annual cost of purchasing RR soybean seeds ($40 to $50 per 50-lb. bag, which covers roughly 2 acres) because Monsanto prohibits farmers from saving and planting its patented seeds, and GM soybeans are no longer economically viable for farmers.
Since non-GM crops receive a higher market price when grown for export, it’s not surprising that farmers are looking for ways to tap into conventional and organic soybean export markets. Corn feed farmers may soon follow this same path, given the escalating costs associated with growing GM corn and the limited supplies and steady global demand for non-GM corn, as my Japanese visitors have experienced.
Consumer rejection of GM foods overseas continues to galvanize non-GM markets. And since most countries, Japan included, do not grow GM crops domestically, consumers in those countries know that their preferences can influence market supply. That’s why SCCC representatives brought to the U.S. a statement from the “No! GMO Campaign,” comprised of 53 farmer, consumer, and public interest groups opposing the U.S. cultivation of GM sugar beets and the import of its byproduct, beet pulp, for livestock feed. Their message to U.S. food and feed producers is clear: Beware of international market losses if GM sugar beets are used in products exported to Japan.
GM sugar beets are the newest major GM crop in the U.S. pipeline that could be added to food and feed as early as 2009. This is likely to happen unless the Center for Food Safety’s lawsuit against the USDA prevails. If it does prevail, it would halt future plantings of GM sugar beets until USDA produces an Environmental Impact Statement, as required by law. And, if the Agency demonstrates that significant environmental and/or related economic impacts could result if GM sugar beets are planted, then USDA could prohibit the planting and market introduction of GM sugar beets. But if USDA decides not to take action, then it will be up to all of us to hold the Agency accountable.
The future of the GM food industry remains uncertain at best. And as history has shown, farmers and consumers have the power to keep GM crops at bay even in the face of tremendous economic and political pressures to do otherwise.