Biotech Crops Frighten Rural Oklahoma Residents

Biotech Crops Frighten Rural Oklahoma Residents

Rural Oklahomans are becoming more frightened about biotech crops, according to a new survey.

The Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Poteau conducted a survey of mostly rural people that revealed some surprising results about rural folks' attitudes toward biotechnology in agriculture, The Daily Oklahoman reported yesterday.

The survey question with one of the highest percentages of support was: Laws regulating biotech are urgently needed? Fully 63% of people surveyed said they agreed with the question. Just 11% disagreed, and the rest were undecided.

"The verdict isn't in on the health and safety of these crops," said Phillip Klutts, president of the Oklahoma Farmers Union.

Farmers worry about how both American and overseas consumers accept crops grown from genetically engineered seed, he said, and foods available in the United States made from those crops need to be labeled as genetically modified.

"I don't think there's any doubt but what there are some reservations among farmers about genetically modified crops," he added. "Because there are those overseas that are concerned about genetically modified crops, (American farmers) have got to be concerned about whether they've got a market for the crops they grow."

Previously, biotech was just about the only major subject dividing consumers and farmers.

Conventional wisdom has been that many farmers embrace genetically modified crops in the belief that the seeds scientists have altered can blossom into bigger, healthier crops that require fewer chemicals to grow. At the same time, more American consumers have been following the lead of Europeans who say use of modified seeds is a dangerous flirtation with Mother Nature that could yield unexpected hazards.

The Kerr Center's survey indicates that urban and rural dwellers are coming closer to holding hands on the biotech issue.

"There were so many people undecided about biotechnology, especially people in rural areas involved in some aspect of agriculture. People might expect them to be wholeheartedly behind it," said Maura McDermott, Kerr Center spokeswoman. "That wasn't the case."

One pro-biotech question got extremely high support from respondents.

The survey question was: Genetically modified seeds have increased the quantity of agricultural production? Almost 67% agreed. And people under age 20, most of whom were agriculture students at universities, were even more supportive. More than 79% agreed with the question.

Despite those results, a U.S. Department of Agriculture study said there is no clear economic advantage to planting soybeans or cotton that has been genetically modified to be herbicide- tolerant, based on comparisons of costs and yields.

Many rural people, like many urban residents, have not made up their minds about biotechnology in agriculture. When the responses of undecided people and those who disagreed were added together, they made up a clear majority on several questions.

That was true of the following questions: Genetically modified seeds have increased the quality of agricultural production? Biotechnology is good for agricultural communities? We have more to gain than lose with biotechnology? Biotechnology increases farmer profits? Biotechnology is good for the environment?

The Kerr Center survey results are further evidence that farmers are backing away from genetically modified seed.

In April, the USDA surveyed farmers about their plans to plant genetically altered seeds to resist weed-killers or insects. Farmers said they planned to decrease the number of acres planted with genetically altered seed.

Soybeans are important in Oklahoma, where farmers grow about 9.5 million bushels. Although there are no separate figures for the state's soybean growers, growers nationwide reported they expected to plant 52% of their acreage in biotech soybeans. That is a 5% drop from last year.