A British study on the economic impacts of genetically modified (GM) crops confirms what Montana farmer Helen Waller has known for years. And it may strengthen the case for those who would ban GM wheat from the Montana landscape.
Last week’s report from Britain’s Soil Association estimates that the U.S. economy suffered losses of at least $12 billion since 1999 in part because Japan and the European Union do not want the importation of genetically modified crops.
These days it’s not low prices for her winter and spring wheat that worry Waller but concerns about closed export markets, since at least 60 percent of Montana’s harvest is shipped overseas.
“If you don’t have a market for [GM wheat], it doesn’t reduce the price,” Waller said. “It makes it simply non-saleable.”
Waller has farmed in eastern Montana since she and her husband were married 50 years ago. She joined the Northern Plains Resource Council (NPRC) three decades ago and since then has become a spokeswoman on the issue of GM crops. Last weekend she traveled to Pittsburgh to address crowds at the annual Farm Aid concert which raises money to help America’s family farmers.
According to NPRC, agri-business giant Monsanto is looking to introduce GM wheat into Montana as early as 2005. The upside to Monsanto’s “Round-Up Ready” wheat is that the entire crop can be sprayed with herbicide, killing all weeds. The downside is that farmers must purchase Monsanto’s seeds each spring and use the chemical herbicide Round-Up.
Opponents argue that GM wheat can spread from one field to another and in the process ruin the global reputation of Montana’s wheat industry.
In 2001, Montana lawmakers considered two bills that would have temporarily banned the introduction of certain GM crops, letting other grain-growing regions take the risk first. Butch Waddill (R–Florence) carried a bill in the House and Jon Tester (D–Big Sandy) carried a bill in the Senate. Both measures failed. Waddill is not running for reelection this fall but Tester says he is prepared to introduce a similar bill next session.
“This is about being able to farm the way you want to farm,” Tester says. “If I have a neighbor who’s growing [GM crops] and I’m growing for a Pacific Rim market that doesn’t want [GM products] and I get invaded, what’s my recourse?”
To address such concerns, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced in August that it would consider setting up a voluntary program to certify conventional agriculture as GM-free. However, the program would certify only the methods of production and distribution, not guarantee the absence of GM crops.
Some farmers sense as much opportunity as danger in the debate over GM agriculture. They argue that if Montana were to ban the introduction of Round-Up Ready wheat, the already sterling reputation of high-protein Montana wheat would be further enhanced.
“If we could keep Montana and this region free of genetically engineered grain, we would certainly have a quality product that would be in high demand,” Waller says.