Seeds of Doubt | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

Seeds of Doubt 

Genetically modified crops work for struggling farmers like Jim Hasser, but soon there may be little profit in raising "Frankenfood."

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

On Mother's Day, his 50th birthday, Jim Hasser stood behind his barn inspecting his corn and soybeans--more than 1,000 acres of uniform rows of sprouts that extended all the way to the horizon. Hasser, whose farm is two hours southeast of Chicago near Earl Park, Indiana, was happy that he'd been able to finish his spring planting the day before, but much of the area had been hit with frost that morning. The soybeans had barely had time to sprout, and some of them looked a bit wilted. "Those plants are already dead," he said. "They just don't know it yet." But he figured the damage wasn't bad enough to justify replanting. He still had 28,000 to 30,000 plants per acre, which could produce a good, though not great, crop.

He was more concerned that corn and soy prices were the lowest he'd ever seen them, which almost guaranteed that he would lose money this fall. "I don't mind not making money for a year or two, but this has gone on for three years now," he said. "I probably cannot make a net profit this year. It's getting ridiculous." The past two years, federal Freedom to Farm emergency subsidies paid him just enough to keep the farm running. Fortunately, his wife and high school sweetheart, Janet, works full-time at the county clerk's office, and he makes a little extra plowing for other farmers and fixing their machinery.

On Mother's Day the price of corn was $1.68 a bushel, a 25-year low; soy was an equally depressing $4.24. Both were well below the cost of production, which Hasser, who consistently gets above-average yields, estimates at about $2.10 a bushel for corn and $5.25 for soy--not including the cost of his labor.

There are plenty of reasons for the low prices. Production has been very high around the world for the past couple of years--Brazilian farmers are major competitors for the Chinese grain market--but the global economy hasn't been good. Last year Europeans didn't want any of the genetically modified crops that many American farmers had grown.

To make matters worse, the cost of fertilizer has skyrocketed--up from $90 a ton a year ago to $200 a ton in February--because the cost of natural gas, which is used to make it, has exploded. This season Hasser managed to secure some old nitrogen fertilizer for a reasonable price, but if the price of gas doesn't go down soon there will be no bargains next year.

"It's tight," he says. "It's tough. We will stay in business as long as we can. Sometimes I question my sanity."

Desperate to cut costs, Hasser was one of the first farmers in the country to plant Monsanto's genetically modified Roundup Ready soybeans after they were introduced in 1996. He figures they save him 15 to 25 cents per bushel in production costs. But he now worries that the growing controversy over genetically modified crops will be the thing that finally puts him out of business.

Hasser and his wife have the same great-great-grandparents, who moved from Nassau, Germany, to Pittsburgh and then across the prairie in a wagon to Earl Park. Hasser pointed east and said, "Why they didn't travel three miles that way to get better ground I don't know." He owns 700 acres of the land that Janet's great-grandparents farmed and 40 acres of an 800-acre farm his great-grandparents owned, and he leases another 300 acres, including some of the land their great-great-grandparents settled on. He figures he could make a profit if he could afford another 200 or so acres.

Hasser inherited most of his current farm from his father, who bought it in the 1970s. He learned to farm working with his father, who learned the same way from his father. Hasser's 25-year-old son Aaron is now working 25 acres of land and is interested in eventually taking over the farm. "Aaron's dream is to farm," Hasser says, "but the industry is so foreboding that it's hard to predict if he'll be able to make a living ten years from now."

Their farm is small by today's standards. But Hasser doesn't have money to buy new land, and he's competing with neighboring farmers for land to lease. "We still have sort of a community feeling," he says. "But you don't trust your neighbor anymore, because you don't know if he's trying to get your land out from under you from your landlord. We're not a family farm--these are businesses that happen to be run by families."

Hasser is still paying off the used combine he bought in 1996 for $110,000 and says the same rig would cost $200,000 today; his father bought a combine in 1968 for $22,000. The last tractor Hasser bought was in 1976, when he paid $56,000. He's been able to hang on partly because he can fix his own machinery.

"From what the old-timers tell me, in the old days you could mess up and still make money," he says. "Today, you screw up and you're out of business--and it doesn't take much."

Hasser was approached by the Saint Louis-based Monsanto corporation about growing its Roundup Ready soybeans in 1995. The federal government approved the soybeans for food use in 1996, and more and more farmers began planting them.

Some genetic modifications allow plants to make their own pesticides--corn that kills the corn borers that usually feast on it or papayas that are resistant to a common virus. Monsanto's Roundup Ready, or herbicide-tolerant (HT), soybeans work in a different way--they're resistant to Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, a particularly aggressive chemical that can be used once to control weeds where other herbicides have to be applied two or three times.

Monsanto created its HT beans using a form of the common soil microorganism Agrobacterium, strain CP4, that was naturally tolerant of Roundup's active ingredient, glyphosate. Monsanto's researchers spliced a single protein from the microorganism, CP4 EPSPS, into the soy's DNA, replacing its own EPSPS gene. As a result, Roundup Ready plants, unlike ordinary soy plants, will not be killed by Roundup.

Monsanto charges $6 per 50-pound bag of seed. The price for making two or three applications of conventional herbicides is about $25 to $40 an acre, but one shot of Roundup costs farmers only about $10 an acre. The average net savings is 20 cents a bushel.

But there's a cost to this added efficiency--if you want to plant Monsanto HT soy, you have to buy the seed every year. Farmers often keep part of their soy crop to plant the following spring, which they can do for one or two generations without hurting yields or quality while saving themselves the cost of new seed. This is called "brown-bagging," because farmers take part of their harvest in brown bags to a grain elevator to be cleaned. Monsanto doesn't allow farmers to brown-bag its HT soybeans. "Monsanto came out and said that you can't do that because the seed won't replant," says Hasser. "But it was a bunch of bull. Monsanto has actually taken people to court and cleaned their clocks for doing this."

Hasser says the company even talked of introducing a "termination gene" to make the next generation sterile. "They have backed off on that," he says. "They would have done it but were concerned about the politics. The ability to do that does exist, which I think is really scary." He adds that now that he's tied to such a company he no longer feels like a rugged individualist. "Some farmers have told Monsanto to go to Hades," he says.

Yet Hasser believes he has no choice but to use the seed, because he has to pinch every penny. He also believes that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) such as golden rice and golden mustard--beta-carotene-rich staple crops intended for the developing world--can provide enormous benefits. He now plants 500 acres of the HT beans, all of which go to Monsanto to sell as seed, for which he's paid up to 90 cents per bushel over the market price. Other farmers are planting plenty of the beans too--they now make up 60 percent of the U.S. crop. Hasser is concerned that the American public is only now becoming aware of this trend, saying, "Monsanto really did a bad public relations job on this."

The European public has already responded. Last year--after a series of protests sponsored by environmentalist groups based in Germany and Austria, who dubbed GMOs "Frankenfood"--the European Union decided to ban all GMOs, including HT soybeans. It wasn't that anyone had found a problem with HT soy in particular--nobody has to date--but the EU was concerned about the larger trend toward using GMOs. This year it plans to lift the ban but set up strict regulations.

Greenpeace is taking the lead in protesting the use of GMOs in the U.S., arguing that switching one gene may cause more problems than anyone knows. Scientists now suspect that a single gene may do several, even thousands, of jobs, so it isn't clear that changing a gene will have only the desired effect. In fact, there are cases in which scientists were surprised by the consequences. A corn-pigment gene that was spliced into a petunia caused the unexpected side effects of more leaves and stems in the GMO plants and lowered fertility. A yeast that was engineered to cause faster fermentation also produced toxic and mutagenic con-centrations of methylglyoxal.

Greenpeace activists argue that there could be problems with any GMOs we eat but because there's no labeling, people can't make the connection. Companies such as Monsanto oppose labeling, saying it would erroneously indicate to the consumer that there's reason to be concerned about GMOs.

Nevertheless, in recent months Monsanto has been trying to demonstrate that it's taking environmentalists' concerns seriously. In late November the company's CEO, Hendrik Verfaillie, promised to create a dialogue with nongovernmental bodies such as Greenpeace, and earlier this year it created a grower advisory council that will meet with farmers to address their concerns. It has also pledged that no new product will be unveiled without full approval as feed and food in the U.S. and Japan--and Europe, depending on how it writes its regulations.

"We wouldn't have another StarLink," says Lee Quarles, a spokesperson for Monsanto, referring to the genetically modified corn produced by Aventis that creates its own pesticide. Farmers began growing it in the late 90s, but the U.S. government rejected it for human consumption because it contained a peanut gene, which officials feared could trigger severe allergy attacks in some people. The corn was supposed to be kept separate from all food varieties, but late last year it was found in about 300 food products, from taco shells to a Japanese baking mix. As far as anyone knows, nobody has ever been made sick by the products, but the controversy made many Americans aware of GMOs for the first time.

Farmers felt the heat. "The best estimate I've heard is that the Aventis event has meant a 30-cent hit to the price per bushel of corn," says Hasser. "That's a big hit. Aventis put the StarLink out without informing the dealers or the farmers that there was a problem with it--a lot of people planted it without even knowing." Aventis agreed to pay up to $1 billion to grain-elevator operators and farmers who grew the corn. Farmers will get 25 cents per bushel.

Americans haven't yet rejected GMOs on their tables, but the protests are getting louder. Companies such as Kellogg's, which has faced protesters outside its headquarters, are growing worried about GMOs. The Earth Liberation Front recently planted a bomb that blew up a Michigan State University laboratory involved in genetic research, doing an estimated $900,000 in damage.

The use of GMOs is nevertheless rising. A March 30 USDA "planting intention survey" shows the number of acres devoted to genetically modified core crops--corn, soy, and cotton--was up again this year. It's estimated that half of the food products on America's grocery shelves already have genetically altered ingredients in them. But this year some grain elevators will pay 10 to 15 cents a bushel extra for non-GMO soy, which must be tested on the spot to qualify. If the price went up to 20 cents a bushel, farmers would no longer have much of an incentive to plant HT soy.

Asked what would happen if a scandal hit Monsanto's HT soybeans, Hasser says, "That's just too scary to think about. If the Roundup Ready beans were to get into the same position as the StarLink corn, there would be a lot of us in a world of hurt--because there is far greater exposure of Roundup soy out there than there ever was of StarLink. If it were bad enough, it's definitely something that could put us out of business."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/M.C. Thomas.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Agenda Teaser

Music
ASAP Ferg, Jay IDK House of Blues
July 17
Performing Arts
Guards at the Taj Steppenwolf Theatre
June 13

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories