By Philip Brasher

AP Farm Writer

WASHINGTON (AP)--Farmers are turning away from genetically engineered crops, especially a biotech corn that's toxic to insects, amid consumer resistance that started overseas and is now being felt in the United States.

Plantings of the gene-altered corn are projected to drop 24% this year, according to findings of a U.S. Department of Agriculture survey released March 31. The report also suggested declines in biotech varieties of cotton and soybeans.

"We don't want to go out here and spend any more money .. than we absolutely have to," said Allan Morris, who farms near Mason, IL. "We can't afford to do that with the margins we have in agriculture."

Biotech crops had caught on quickly in the late 1990s despite the relatively high cost of the seed.

Europeans were the first to balk at buying biotech grain, which wary Britons have dubbed "Frankenfoods," but there is also resistance in Asia, and a handful of U.S. companies now are turning them down, including baby food makers and snack-food giant Frito-Lay Inc. U.S. regulators insist that the biotech crops are no different from conventional versions.

The biotech corn, known as Bt corn for a bacteria gene that it contains, became especially controversial last year after a Cornell University study suggested it could be killing Monarch butterflies.

According to the USDA survey, farmers in major corn-producing states intend to plant 19% of their corn acreage this year to the Bt variety, down from 25% in 1999.

Plantings of biotech cotton are projected to decline from 55% last year to 48% in 2000. Some 52% of this year's soybean acreage is expected to be a biotech variety that is resistant to a popular herbicide. About 57% of soybeans last year were herbicide resistant, including a small amount that was conventionally bred.

"Producers are just trying to protect themselves. The industry seems to be saying they want less biotech and that's what their interest is, going to where the industry is telling them to go," said Don Roose, an analyst with U.S. Commodities, Inc.

Farm groups had expected the reduction in biotech corn because of resistance to the crop in overseas markets and a decline in infestations of the European corn borer, the pest the corn is designed to kill.

"Farmers need markets. They always say the consumer is king, and the consumer in this case isn't that interested in genetically engineered corn," said Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Seed companies have insisted that demand for biotech varieties is in line with last year, although some have been offering discounts to farmers to maintain sales. Monsanto Co.'s biotech sales are "flat to marginally better" than last year, said spokesman Dan Verakis.

Jerry Dittrich, who farms near Tilden, NE, planted at least 75% of his corn and soybean acreage to biotech varieties last year and isn't cutting back. They save work and reduce the need for insecticides and herbicides, he said. "I haven't seen any proof that it's not safe," he said.

But Morris, the Illinois farmer, planted Bt seed on just 10% of his corn acreage in 1999 and said he's going to grow even less this year.

Overall, farmers plan to plant an estimated 77.9 million acres of corn this year, up 1% from 1999, and a record 74.9 million acres of soybeans, also a 1% increase, according to the USDA survey.

Total cotton plantings are expected to reach 15.6 million acres this year, an increase of 5% from last year, and the second-largest acreage since 1962. Sugarbeet acreage is expected to rise by 1% to 1.6 million.

Wheat acreage is expected to total 61.7 million acres, down 2% from 1999, reflecting a shift to crops that producers consider more lucrative.

Soybeans have become increasingly popular with farmers in recent years because of federal price supports that make the crop more profitable than some other commodities, according to analysts.

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