The first firm evidence has emerged that the bio-tech food revolution is in retreat in its heartland - the vast cornfields of the American Midwest where the overwhelming bulk of the world's genetically engineered crops are grown.
US farmers have just finished buying seed for the coming growing season, and early studies suggest that a significant proportion are abandoning GM.
A market survey reveals that US farmers plan to plant 16% less genetically modified (GM) corn than they did last year.
The nationwide survey by the American Corn Growers Association (ACGA) lends support to claims to be published today by the Worldwatch environmental group that the global acreage of all GM crops (mainly corn and soybeans) could fall by up to 25% compared with last year.
Though sales of GM soybeans appear to be holding at last year's levels -- more than half the total soybean crop -- the rapid fall-off in demand for GM corn seeds represents a severe blow to the GM industry at its American core. The mass defection from GM seed will hit an industry already beset with consumer scepticism abroad, and falling stock prices on Wall Street.
Most US market analysts questioned this week doubted that the GM slump would be as pronounced as Worldwatch - a Washington-based environmental watchdog - is suggesting. Even though no clear scientific evidence has so far surfaced proving GM crops are harmful, farmers are increasingly uncertain whether they will be able to sell their bio-tech harvest to a world concerned about its long-term health and ecological impact.
"The doubts are spreading like wildfire," Gary Goldberg, ACGA's chief executive officer, said. "Farmers don't know if they're going to have a market next week."
Producers' concerns were deepened this month when Frito-Lay, a giant producer of corn snacks and other convenience foods, told its suppliers that it would not be buying GM corn this year. Seagram, one of the world's largest distillers, made a similar announcement within a few days. The European Union imposed a two-year moratorium on new GM im ports last summer and in January an international "biosafety protocol" meeting in Montreal agreed that all exports of GM food products should be labelled.
In a statement to be issued today Brian Halweil, a Worldwatch researcher, said: "If more American manufacturers hop on the bandwagon, the drop in demand would be devastating for transgenic (GM) growers and seed producers."
US growers are already feeling the pinch. Steve Mattis, an Illinois farmer and seed dealer, told the Guardian yesterday that while his customers were still buying soybean seed in about the same quantities as last season, demand for GM corn seed was down by 75%.
"There will be very, very little corn being planted around here," Mr Mattis said. "The corn elevators [the wholesale markets] are highly recommending that we don't plant it."
The Midwest slump has come despite a determined attempt by big GM producers such as Monsanto to shore up their share of the market. Monsanto representatives have appeared on television commercials to insist that the elevator operators will buy the harvested crop this autumn.
Monsanto GM brands such as BT corn (genetically modified to produce its own insecticide) and Roundup Ready (engineered to survive Monsanto's all-purpose weedkiller) are being offered at discount prices in Illinois, according to Mr Mattis.
Dean Urmstron, a representative of the seed industry lobby in Washington, said it was too early in the season to judge the market accurately and argued that the soybean market appeared to be "ahead of last year".
But Mr Goldberg said he was confident the ACGA survey was an accurate portrayal of the market. It surveyed 582 farmers and initial results suggested that 35% have concerns about planting GM crops. Of them, 82% questioned their marketability.
At his 600-acre farm in western Virginia, Wade Louthan said he had decided not to plant any GM corn this year, and to stop growing Roundup Ready soybeans.
"Not this year," the 37-year-old Virginian said. "You boys [in Europe] have got us scared."
Interviews with farmers across the country suggested that while many felt the European consumer response to GM foods was not entirely rational, there was growing resentment at what are seen as heavy-handed marketing techniques of the GM companies.
Mr Mattis said: "I've been a seed dealer for Monsanto for 18 years and this is the year we are going to have to part ways. They've forgotten that they have to serve farmers. I don't think they care who we've got to grow for. They're just concerned with making a fast buck."
- 181 Food and Agriculture