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New GE Crops Tested in California Threaten Key Export Markets
November 7, 2000
California's agricultural export market may be undermined by the biotechnology industry's pursuit of new genetically engineered (GE) varieties of the state's top export fruits and vegetables, according to a new Greenpeace report. The report, "California at the Crossroads: The Impacts of Genetic Engineering on California's Agriculture," was released in conjunction with the Community Alliance of Family Farmers and California Certified Organic Farmers on October 26, 2000.
Export agriculture is a important part of the California economy as a whole, and a vital source of revenue for the agricultural sector. However, there is significant concern about GE foods in many of the countries that import California's agricultural products. The top five importing countries include the United Kingdom, where outcries against GE have been some of the strongest in the world, and Japan and South Korea, where labeling of GE food is about to become mandatory. Canada and Hong Kong, two more of the top five, both have active consumer campaigns calling for labeling of GE products.
The report reviews six crops of major economic significance to California export agriculture--lettuce, strawberries, tomatoes, rice, grapes and walnuts. These crops have genetically engineered varieties currently being reviewed by U.S. regulatory agencies and are being field tested in the state. Exports of these six crops to the top five importing countries alone account for US$1.125 billion, and represent close to one-sixth of California's total agricultural export receipts.
According to Greenpeace, there is a high likelihood that use of GE crops in California agriculture will threaten important export markets. U.S. farmers have seen exports of corn and soybeans drop dramatically since they started growing GE varieties of those crops. U.S. soy exports to Europe dropped from 11 million tons in 1998 to six million in 1999, and corn exports dropped from two million tons to 137,000 tons. Altogether, this loss of U.S. export markets from 1998 to 1999 was worth nearly US$1 billion. These markets are often lost to countries willing to certify that their export products are GE-free.
Market rejections in Asia have also impacted GE crops. GE papaya trees planted two years ago in Hawaii are now bearing fruit, but foreign markets have been slow to accept the product. Japanese buyers, who once purchased 40% of Hawaii's papaya, are now paying premiums of up to 700% for non-GE fruit. In another case, GE sugar beet seeds are ready for market according to industry insiders, but farmers and beet buyers are not receptive. Japan buys about 80% of the byproduct of beet sugar processing--beet pulp--and Japanese buyers have said that they won't buy any GE product. In Korea, the country's largest tofu maker recently switched to non-GE soybeans after the press revealed that the company's tofu contained GE ingredients.
There is also significant reason for California rice producers to worry about the financial risks that GE rice would present. California exports more than half of the rice produced in the state--in 1998 these exports were valued at US$145 million, out of a total of US$266 million grossed. Japan imports approximately US$90 million annually. The Japanese rice market was not easy for California growers to penetrate because the Japanese are very particular about their rice and consider the taste of California rice inferior to Japanese-grown rice. In addition, Japanese consumers have very strong concerns about GE foods, with 82% having a negative opinion of GE foods according to a recent survey on consumer opinions. These factors plus the recent Starlink corn scandal combine to threaten the stability of the California rice export market in Japan.
Genetic engineering also represents a clear threat to organic agriculture in California. Cross-pollination is a serious threat for most crops, and particularly for wind-pollinated crops like grapes, walnuts and strawberries. Contamination of an organic crop with pollen from a GE crop makes the organic crop unmarketable as such. Current small-scale field trials are already a threat to nearby farms and the risk to organic production will grow as acreage planted with GE crops increases.
"California at the Crossroads: The Impacts of Genetic Engineering on California's Agriculture" is available at http://www.mindfully.org/GE/CA-GE-Agriculture-Impacts.htm
Contact: Greenpeace, 965 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA 94103; phone (415) 512-9023.
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