Biotech seeds pose a threat to organic farmers, environment
By Brian Tokar
Times Argus, March 25, 2005

Once again, the problem of genetically engineered crop varieties (GMOs, or "genetically modified organisms") and their consequences for Vermont farmers is being debated in the Statehouse. Gov. Douglas and Agriculture Secretary Steven Kerr continue to assert that if Vermont farmers would simply communicate better with their neighbors, there would be no need for further legislation to address this vexing issue.

"Coexistence," not regulation, we are told, is the answer to Vermont farmers' problems with GMOs. Unfortunately, the Agency's statements over the past year represent an extremely shortsighted approach to a growing and increasingly serious problem. In Vermont, and worldwide, the market for organic and other identity-preserved non-engineered crops is growing rapidly, while the market for GMOs is highly contested and controversial. The Agency's approach offers no comprehensive protection for non-GMO growers, and no legal requirement for GMO growers to cooperate. This is an unacceptable situation for the vast majority of Vermont farmers who have little to gain and possibly everything to lose from this unreliable and highly disruptive new technology.

The problem of transgenic contamination of organic and other non-engineered crops has become increasingly widespread. In Canada, farmers have detected varieties of canola that are simultaneously resistant to three different chemical herbicides, as a result of cross-pollination of different varieties genetically manipulated to be herbicide tolerant. These have come to be viewed as "superweeds," requiring increasingly virulent weed killers to remove them.

In Mexico, small amounts of genetically engineered feed corn imported from the U.S. have been planted experimentally by some farmers, leading to the widespread contamination of indigenous corn varieties with transgenic DNA in nine Mexican states. A 2004 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists showed detectable genetic contamination of several popular varieties of corn and soybeans sold as non-GMO seed for commercial planting. In response, grain mills across the US have begun testing crops for GMO contamination, and rejecting shipments that test even slightly positive.

In the European Union, governments and NGOs have been debating the issue of "coexistence" for more than two years, but only after a de facto five year moratorium on the introduction of any new engineered crop varieties, and the passage of stringent, continent-wide rules for GMO food labeling and for tracing ingredients from farm to finished product. A 2002 study by the European Commission's Joint Research Centre reported that it would be "virtually impossible" to maintain levels of contamination low enough to satisfy the requirements of organic food processors; for conventional corn crops, a "coexistence" policy would cost farmers approximately $150 per acre, rising to 9 percent of their crop's value in areas of more intensive production.

The rules currently under discussion in Europe would place a clear burden of proof and expense on those who would introduce GMOs to any region previously free of these crops. Since the emergence of commercial genetically engineered varieties in 1996, commercial producers of genetically engineered seeds have created a climate of secrecy and intimidation among farmers. More than 90 farmers have been sued by Monsanto alone for a variety of claimed contract violations, and an unknown number have been pressured to settle out of court and sign punitive gag orders. We know from press reports that Monsanto has an annual budget of $10 million devoted to legal action against farmers, and that farmers whose crops are contaminated by Monsanto's GMO pollen have little recourse to protect themselves. That is why the clear assignment of liability to commercial producers of GMO seeds is a major focus of this year's debate.

It would take a profound change of culture on the part of GMO growers, along with legal changes, for them to begin sharing detailed information about their varieties and practices. What incentive do GMO growers have to begin talking more openly with their non-GMO farmer neighbors? This cannot happen without specific changes in statute, and it would be aided significantly by a moratorium on GMO seed use until all the underlying legal, scientific and environmental issues can be adequately addressed.

Most at risk are the growing numbers of organic growers in Vermont. Whereas inadvertent genetic contamination is not sufficient grounds for a farmer to lose organic certification, processors and distributors of organic crops, as well as highly in-demand GMO-free conventional crops, routinely test for contamination. A farmer could remain certified, but find him or herself unable to sell their crops as organic, losing the important price premium that has helped save numerous Vermont farms in recent years.

For all these reasons, farmer advocates have united with environmentalists and people working for safer food to support the current Farmer Protection Act in the Vermont Legislature (S. 18), as well as a pending proposal for a ten-year moratorium on GMO use.

Today, several genetically engineered varieties of field corn and a small amount of soybeans are being grown here. Federal approvals are under way, however, for the release of GMO vegetable crops, alfalfa, turf grass, and even fish and trees. Today, GMO use in our state is relatively limited, far below the national average even for corn and soybeans. If Vermont agriculture is to thrive, it is important that we take meaningful action before it is too late.

Brian Tokar is the director of the Biotechnology Project at the Institute for Social Ecology in Plainfield, and has edited two books on the science and politics of genetic engineering.

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