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Amish Farmers Grow Biotech Tobacco, Potatoes

Amish farmers in Pennsylvania say they can earn twice as much with biotech tobacco.

It may come as a surprise to learn that some Amish farmers, who have shunned innovations like the telephone and electricity, have embraced biotechnology.

But in fact, a growing number of Amish in Pennsylvania have been using genetically enhanced seeds because they see them as another tool to help them continue their traditional agrarian lifestyle.

"I myself like biotechnology," Amish farmer Daniel Dienner told the Associated Press. "I feel it's what the farmers will be using in the future."1††

Dienner is one of about 550 Amish farmers in Pennsylvania who have been growing a genetically enhanced, nicotine-free tobacco plant since 2001.2 Other Amish farmers have been growing a biotech potato, which is resistant to pests and viruses, on a test basis.3

The biotech tobacco has been commercialized by Vector Tobacco and is used in Quest cigarettes, which are designed to help smokers quit the habit. Dienner says Vector Tobacco has been paying about $1.50 per pound for the nicotine-free tobacco — nearly double the 80-cent-per-pound rate for traditional tobacco.4

The increased income — genetically enhanced tobacco can earn up to $3,500 per acre compared with $300 to $400 per acre with corn5 — has allowed more farmers to continue farming.

"Without tobacco, I wouldn't be at it anymore," one Amish farmer told the Associated Press. "We have a three-year contract. I wish it would be 10 years." 6

Amish scholars say genetically enhanced crops are not inconsistent with the simple life that is central to Amish beliefs because it helps them continue their ties to agriculture, allowing families to work together.

Dienner, his wife and their seven children hand-plant the biotech tobacco seedlings provided by Vector. They harvest the plants together and strip the leaves from the stalks and hang them in their barn to dry.

"It teaches a whole family to work," Dienner told the Associated Press.

Amish scholar Steven M. Nolt, an associate professor of history at Goshen College in Indiana, said he can't think of a reason why biotechnology would present a conflict with the Amish way of living.

"If it helped them to keep on farming small-scale farms, it would present a benefit," he said. "They don't dislike technology per se. They just avoid those technologies that might cause a diminishing of their family life or other strongly held beliefs."

"Amish law doesn't say anything about growing genetically modified tobacco," added Dienner in an interview with Wired magazine.7

Followers of the Amish religion, a division of the Christian Mennonites, or Anabaptists, interpret the Bible literally and follow a set of unwritten rules of the church known as the Ordnung. The Amish tradition differs from many other modern religions in that its faith is combined in its entire culture. To preserve their culture and lifestyle, the Amish try to avoid what they consider outside negative influences.

But their reasons for avoiding specific technologies should not be mistaken for a complete shunning of all technology. For instance, some Amish are willing to use telephones in public places, but they don't want them in their homes. And some have adopted modern farming technologies such as milk-cooling systems. But many fruits of technology are avoided because they conflict with basic tenets of the Amish religion: devotion to God, separation from the outside world, self-sufficiency and closeness to nature.8

Biotech proponent is Amish descendant

Klaus Ammann, a field botanist and director of the Botanical Garden at the University of Bern and who spoke at the Biotechnology Industry Organization annual conference in June 2003, has firsthand knowledge of some Amish farmers' willingness to adopt technology. He is a vocal proponent of the benefits of biotechnology and as a specialist on biosafety he says he cannot detect any reason why organic farmers should not adopt modern breeding technologies. Ammannís family is also related to Jakob Ammann, the founder of the Amish sect that began in Switzerland in the 17th century.

Over the years, Klaus Ammann has developed ties with Amish communities in Pennsylvania.

"As farmers, they do not reject technology out of hand but instead examine every innovation closely in an effort to determine whether it might pose a danger to their religion or way of life," said Ammann in a 2001 International Food Policy Research Institute conference.9

Ammann confirms that the Amish are very curious about other technologies that might help them preserve their farming way of life. And because of his own belief that biotechnology has much to offer, Ammann has spoken at length about growing biotech crops with his Amish friends.

"To my amazement, they decided to test samples of genetically modified seeds soon afterwards," said Ammann.10

Ammann is quick to point out, however, that not all Amish are open to biotechnology.

"But the key thought is that they have an active spirituality and do not depend on any kind of 'new green religion' — they decide on their own," he said.†

For more information:

Thoughts About the Future of Agriculture: Science and Fiction in the Risk Assessment Debate — IFPRI Sustainable Food Security For All by 2020 Conference

Amish Test Altered Crop — Associated Press

Come to LeBow Country — Wired Magazine

1 Strawley, George, "Genetic Engineering Arrives in Amish Country," Associated Press via Indianapolis Star, May 29, 2001.

2 Ammann, Klaus, "Summary Note — Thoughts About the Future of Agriculture: Science and Fiction in the Risk Assessment Debate," IFPRI Sustainable Food Security For All by 2020 Conference, Sept. 4, 2001, <>.

3 Strawley, George, "Amish Test Altered Crop," Associated Press via, May 2, 2001, <>.

4 Davis, Joshua, "Come to LeBow Country," Wired, February 2003, <>.

5 Strawley, George, "Amish Test Altered Crop," Associated Press via, May 2, 2001, <>.

6 "Amish Farmers Counting on Tobacco," the Associated Press, Oct. 11, 2002, <>.

7 Davis, Joshua, "Come to LeBow Country," Wired, February 2003, <>.

8 "The Amish," The Religious Movements Homepage at the University of Virginia, April 18, 2001, <>.

9 Ammann, Klaus, "Thoughts About the Future of Agriculture: Science and Fiction in the Risk Assessment Debate," IFPRI Sustainable Food Security For All by 2020 Conference, Sept. 4, 2001, <>.

10 Ammann, Klaus, "Thoughts About the Future of Agriculture: Science and Fiction in the Risk Assessment Debate," IFPRI Sustainable Food Security For All by 2020 Conference, Sept. 4, 2001, <>.

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