Is China’s GMO corn ban protecting consumers or protecting markets?

For 42 years, Don Villwock has grown soybeans and corn on 4,000 acres in southwest Indiana. He has endured low prices, bad weather and trade embargoes. This year, however, he’s facing a new challenge: China.

In March, China’s authorities stopped accepting exports of corn that contained a specific, very common genetic modification intended to make the plant resistant to insects. A few months later China also began rejecting dried distillers grain – a byproduct of ethanol production – that carried the trait.

Corn2Villwock explains that, as a major market evaporated, prices tumbled, and farms across the US took a financial hit. “We’re one of them,” he says. “I got to see this movie from the front row.”

Genetically modified foods have long been controversial. Opponents argue that these crops damage the environment, contribute to corporate control of food systems, and have not been proven safe for human consumption. Supporters counter that genetically engineered crops require less pesticide use and could be a key part of confronting rising food demand worldwide.

China’s recent moves, however, raise questions about the global future of GMO crops.

Ripples from a closed market

The trait China rejected was developed by Syngenta, one of the major producers of genetically engineered seeds. Four years ago, they released it under the name Viptera; since then, it has been approved in most major markets, including the US and the generally GMO-shy European Union. China, however, has lagged on approving the trait. Earlier this year, they began cracking down on imports.

Veronica Nigh, an economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), says that, in recent years, China has bought about 40% of the dried distillers grain produced in the US. But now, with Viptera unwelcome in China, many middlemen have become unwilling to buy any corn that might contain the trait, and many farmers have been left with surplus corn. In turn, the extra supply of corn in the market has driven down prices for all corn growers.

“When your number one customer starts rejecting [your crop], the price drops quickly,” Nigh says.

In response, the US Grains Council asked Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to pressure China to approve the trait. Some critics, however, place the blame squarely on Syngenta for pushing a new trait before it was approved by a major trading partner. The North American Export Grain Association and the National Grain and Feed Association have asked Syngenta to cease marketing Viptera and another unapproved trait. International trading company Cargill and livestock feed exporter Trans Coastal have both sued the biotech giant, claiming expected losses of $90 million and $41 million, respectively.

Syngenta did not respond to requests for comment, but has rejected responsibility on its website. David Morgan, president of Syngenta Seeds, has asserted that halting marketing of certain seeds at this point would be tantamount to giving a foreign nation control over US agricultural practices.

At the moment, biotech companies are standing by the power of GMOs. Villwock says, however, that some farmers are considering a return to conventional seed next year rather than risk growing crops that prove unsellable.

An economic power play?

AFBF’s Nigh suggests that China has economic reasons for rejecting Viptera: Chinese corn farmers are experiencing significant surpluses right now, and slowing imports could help buoy prices for these growers. However, once the fear of GMOs is incited, she says, it is not easy to reverse.

“Long-term, our concern is that it slows down the abilities of US farmers to adopt the newest and best technology available to them,” she says.

Monsanto, a major seed producer that is not currently having trouble with China, is still developing GMO traits. But Rob Fraley, the company’s chief technology officer, points out that it has also been dedicating a growing portion of its budget – currently over 50% – to “advanced breeding” programs. Whereas GMO seeds generally contain altered DNA or genetic code from other species, this new program is more like an accelerated, science-aided version of old fashioned breeding: scientists use gene mapping techniques to identify desired traits in plants, making it easier for breeders to select for these characteristics.

“They can breed faster, they can breed more precisely, they can map and tag breeding traits – but it’s not a GMO,” Fraley says.

These techniques have already produced an antioxidant-boosting broccoli that is just coming to market, Fraley says, noting that other varieties that offer enhanced nutrition, better flavor, and other desirable traits are also in development.

There are also promising alternatives to genetically modified crops, says Bill Freese, a science policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety. Farming practices known as ecological agriculture – including crop rotation and the planting of cover crops – can help keep weeds at bay, making it unnecessary to plant herbicide-resistant GMO seeds. Moreover, he explains, conventional breeding programs have produced the kinds of drought-tolerant and enhanced-nutrition strains promised by genetic engineering. However, none of these new varieties have yet been able to gain traction in the market because the breeders, many of whom are publicly funded, don’t have the money or clout to compete with GMO producers, he says.

Even with the challenges they’re facing, GMOs are likely to stick around. Genetically modified crops make up nearly 90% of the corn grown in the US. And, according to a recent study by the Georg-August-University of Goettingen, GMO seed has increased yields by 22% and farmers’ profits by 68%.

Many farmers are planning to stick with their GMO seeds. When prices are low, Villwock says, it just makes sense to use the seeds with the highest yields. And, in his experience, those are genetically modified crops. “There’s no doubt the economics lean towards planting a GMO crop,” Villwock says. “We will stay planting GMOs on our farm.”

This story originally ran on on November 20, 2014.


Latest in farm fresh products: We deliver

LEXINGTON — When Amanda Bosh goes grocery shopping, it’s all about super fresh apples, artisan cheese, free-range chicken, and organic Brussels sprouts.

But Bosh doesn’t get these products at an upscale supermarket. Instead, she heads to a local private school, where she will pick up the best quality meat, dairy, fruit, and vegetables.

Bosh’s bounty, packed tight into a reusable grocery bag, comes courtesy of Farmers to You, a company that delivers to Boston area consumers direct from Vermont farms. In addition to drop-off sites such as the Waldorf School of Lexington, the company offers home delivery in Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, Brookline, and a few suburban communities.

Farmers to You is one of several area companies expanding the local food movement beyond farmers markets and trendy restaurants, tapping into the growing demand by consumers to know and understand the source of their food. Some businesses, like Farmers to You, deliver from farm to fridge. Others add another stop and more convenience, by preparing local farm products as ready-to-eat meals. Still others connect New England farms to institutional food services, such as school cafeterias.

Farmers to You, based in Calais, Vt., was founded in 2009 with the dual mission of supporting farms and food producers in Vermont and improving the access of Boston area consumers to fresh farm products. Something GUD, a Somerville startup, works on a similar model, sourcing foods from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island and delivering them to pickup sites and homes from Quincy to Newburyport.

Prices are comparable to what a shopper would pay at Whole Foods for similar items, the company founders said. For example, a gallon of organic skim milk is about $6 both through Something GUD and at Whole Foods.

The difference: Most of the money spent with these local food businesses goes to the farmers and artisans producing the food.

Greg Georgaklis, the founder of Farmers to You, estimates the farms with which the company partners receive about 65 cents for each dollar customers pay. On average, farmers nationally get just 15.5 cents per dollar spent by consumers in supermarkets, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

“My vision of the future would be that 50 percent of food that’s bought is bought somehow directly through farmers,” Georgaklis said.

Farmers to You delivers to about 480 families that spend an average of $65 each week. The company estimates it will turn a profit when it signs up 600 families, which it expects to do by spring.

At Cuisine en Locale in Somerville, owner JJ Gonson turns local foods into frozen meals that are delivered weekly to the company’s 35 customers.

Each delivery includes about 10 pounds of prepared food, about enough to provide four meals for two adults. At $145 per week, the service costs about the same as getting takeout a few times a week, Gonson said.

Farmers to You was founded in 2009 with the dual mission of supporting farms and food producers in Vermont and improving the access of Boston area consumers to fresh farm products. Among the products it delivers to Boston area customers, organic ice cream, maple syrup, eggs, and apple butter.

Gonson uses only fresh foods produced within a 100-mile radius of Boston, never using ingredients, such as lemons, that can’t be grown here. She estimates her sales last year generated about $150,000 in revenues for area farmers, and she expects that to double in the coming year.

“We don’t even own a can opener, nor a lemon reamer,” she said.

The business evolved from Gonson’s work as a personal chef. The company operated out of shared commercial kitchens around the Boston area for the first seven years, but moved into its own space about a month ago after buying Anthony’s function hall in Somerville.

Rather than focusing on individual consumers, FoodEx in Roxbury serves institutional buyers – school districts, universities, hospitals.

JD Kemp, the chief executive and cofounder, wants to reach what he describes as “the other 90 percent of the market” – people who don’t go out of their way to pursue local food.

FoodEx secures commitments from institutions to buy produce, eggs, and dairy from farmers throughout the Northeast. The company’s customers include about 40 universities, school districts, and individual high schools.

FoodEx runs its own trucks and warehouse. This distribution system cuts out several steps — and costs — in the supply chain, which means farmers get above average prices while buyers pay the same as or less than they pay to conventional suppliers, Kemp said.

“We’re unique in this area – and perhaps in the country,” Kemp said, “because we are focused on wholesale and trying to find solutions that go beyond the individual consumer.”

This story originally ran in The Boston Globe on December 6, 2014. Click here to read the story and see photos and graphics.