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Did U.S. farmers take to transgenic crops too well?

In the summer of 1995, I was riding with a company sales representative to look at a field of new transgenic cotton. As we drove, he was saying that the month before he and his colleagues had been wondering how they would ever sell all the seed of the two Bt varieties his firm planned to introduce the following year.

On that late July day, the question had become moot. In the intervening weeks, tobacco budworms decimated much of the cotton crop in Mississippi and Alabama, and farmers were already trying to line up seed of the new Bollgard varieties.

In 1996, more than 90 percent of the farmers in Alabama and 60 to 70 percent of Mississippi growers planted Bollgard cotton. The following year, Monsanto introduced Roundup Ready cotton and soybeans to similar percentages of growers.

While that acceptance helped make Bollgard and Roundup Ready cotton and soybeans and Yieldgard corn a financial success, hindsight says that it might have been better if farmers had not taken to the transgenic crops so well.

On April 18, the European Union began allowing the sale of products containing genetically engineered crops to its consumers. While U.S. farm organizations were gratified their years of trying to persuade the EU to open its borders to GMOs had finally paid off, the victory was still frustrating.

That's because of EU requirements such products be labeled if they contain as little as 0.9 percent of genetically engineered ingredients. Groups like the U.S. National Corn Growers Association also complain the new traceability and labeling rules for GMOs are confusing.

European grocery chains are expected to be slow to put food products containing GMO crops on their shelves because of consumer reaction and pressure from environmental groups like Greenpeace.

Just how intense the latter can be was illustrated by what happened when a Danish brewery introduced a new beer with the labeling in January. Greenpeace members followed the company's trucks to stores and persuaded many managers not to stock the beer.

Whether activists will be able to repeat those efforts as more products containing transgenic ingredients begin reaching stores remains to be seen. But Greenpeace may get help from EU consumers already suspicious of any foods bearing U.S. labels or associated with U.S. crops.

Ironically, companies like Germany's Bayer CropScience are developing genetically engineered crops that they would like to market in Europe, and European farmers have shown interest in growing transgenic crops. Both have been reluctant to risk the wrath of European consumers by trying to be out front in the marketing of so-called “Frankenfoods.”

That's why it might have been better if U.S. adoption of genetically enhanced crops had proceeded at a slower pace. Shipping small amounts of transgenic crops over time rather than forcing Europeans to confront the GMO issue all at once might not have raised the alarms that touched off the current war of words and cross-filings of WTO complaints.

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