* Agriculture secretary promotes crop "coexistence"
* Leading farm groups say it meddles with scientific rules
* Forecast sees 3.5 percent expansion in US crop plantings
* USDA will make first official 2011 projection next month
By Charles Abbott
ATLANTA, Jan 10 Agriculture Secretary Tom
Vilsack told the largest U.S. farm group on Monday that farmers
could see less government interference if they find a way for
traditional and genetically modified crops to co-exist.
Farm groups and the biotechnology industry are skeptical of
Vilsack's "co-existence" proposal. He launched it last month at
the same time the Agriculture Department said planting
restrictions might accompany deregulation of biotech alfalfa.
Vilsack says the biotech alfalfa, developed by Monsanto Co
(MON.N), is safe. An even-handed compromise among growers would
better than repeat litigation over rules for biotech crops, he
said. The alfalfa dispute went to the Supreme Court and a U.S.
appeals court is hearing a case on biotech sugar seeds.
Most U.S. farmers oppose government intrusion on their
"Every farmer ought to be able to do what he or she wants to
do on their land, so we are going to continue to have that
conversation," Vilsack said at the annual meeting of the
American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF). USDA held an alfalfa
"stakeholder" session in December.
Seven major farm groups, including AFBF, wrote to the White
House last week to object to USDA's path on alfalfa. They said
USDA's environmental impact statement showed there was no
danger from biotech alfalfa so it is wrong "to use motives
other than science to impose conditions on this crop."
USDA is considering two options -- total deregulation or
partial deregulation that could include isolation standards
from other crops, set geographic restrictions on where the crop
is grown, spell out harvest periods and regulate equipment
Foes of Monsanto's "Roundup Ready" alfalfa say it could
contaminate neighboring fields and cause losses for organic
crop and dairy farmers. They say USDA does not give enough
thought to preventing adverse consequences, such as development
of herbicide resistant "super weeds."
Spurred by near-record prices for grains, cotton and
soybeans, U.S. farmers will expand plantings by 3.5 percent
this year, said the chairman of a USDA forecasting board. That
would mean an increase of nearly 9 million acres from this year
and put planting on par with 2008, when futures prices set
"We think the price outlook is pretty good for all
commodities," said Gerry Bange, chairman of USDA's World
Agricultural Outlook Board. "There is very strong demand out
there. It is beginning to push on supply, no doubt about it."
High prices create incentives for larger corn and cotton
plantings in particular, said Bange, while soybeans plantings
probably will be up a little bit. He did not forecast plantings
for each crop.
AFBF economist Bob Young said an increase of 5 million-6
million acres was possible, which would alleviate shrinking
U.S. stockpiles. He said the increase planting would include
double-cropping in some regions. Bange said idle land also
would be brought into production.
Growers planted 88.2 million acres of corn, 77.7 million
acres of soybeans, 53.6 million acres of wheat and 11 million
acres of cotton last year.
Farmers said they focus on crop prices and farm supply costs
in deciding what to plant, rather than forecasts of high food
prices. While commodity prices are high, production costs are
"I pay a lot more attention to fuel than I do food," said
Billy Donnell, a Tennessee corn, cotton and soybean farmer.
"Food prices in the grocery store, no, but what I receive for
products, yes," he said.
(Additional reporting by Christopher Doering;editing by Sofina