GMOs – Why We Should Be Concerned

photo by Guthrie Straw Photography

Provided by DCCFW guest writer Clinton Lindsey,  on May 1st, 2012

Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs, are a major topic of concern today for food industry professionals and everyday people alike. What are they? Who makes them? And most importantly, why should we be so concerned about them? The answer may surprise you, for it goes far beyond the potential health risks and alarming lack of responsible government regulation. The real threat of GMOs is so far-reaching that they can, and will, permanently alter our food system by removing the control of food production from farmers and placing it in the hands of a small group of biotech companies – companies who do not have our best interests at heart, despite what their websites and PR departments might say.

GMOs are genetically modified crops engineered for a specific purpose. The two most common genetically engineered (GE) traits are resistance to a specific herbicide or resistance to insect pests through the introduction of a toxin harmful to insects. Some of the biotech firms that engineer these crops are Bayer, BASF, Syngenta, Dow, and the largest biotech firm with the most patents, Monsanto. Monsanto and the other biotech firms originally claimed these GMO crops could be the answer to the world’s food problems. They claimed they could successfully engineer a plant to provide better yields, use less herbicide, and save farmers money. Here we are, sixteen years after the first GMO crop became commercially available, and what do we have? Hunger has not abated, record amounts of herbicides (made by the same companies that manufacture the seeds that resist them) are being poured on our farmland, but Monsanto and their fellow biotech firms are reaping huge profits. It is clear that farmers and the public at large are being fed a sales pitch by the biotech industry. What is being touted as the answer to the world’s hunger problem is in actuality a concerted effort by the biotech industry to control the key element of the world’s food system, that is, the seed.

Our farming system is built on a few core principles that determine what we eat every day.  Farmers grow as much as they can of the food we want to eat. Grains, vegetables, beans, livestock, and fruit are all grown by farmers because we want to buy them. Farmers plant what is in demand, but they ultimately have the choice to plant whatever they wish. That choice, which is fundamental to our ability to feed ourselves with a healthy diversity of crops, is being threatened by the increasing press of GMO crops. For thousands of years farmers have controlled what is grown, and when, through their careful management of crops and their seeds. Farmers have developed successful varieties of thousands of crops through selection of strong seed – seed they save to plant the following season, thereby increasing the vitality of the plant. What happens when you remove farmers’ ability to save seed? What if control of the seed was taken away from farmers and consolidated in the hands of a very few companies? What would this mean for the long-term health and resilience of our food system?

A fundamental principle of agriculture is the strength of a diverse system. Mankind learned thousands of years ago that growing the same crops in a field year after year led to the field’s rapid decline as pests and disease came in to take advantage of the easy food source. Using different crops in a rotation was discovered as a means to break the disease and pest problem and resulted in bigger yields of healthier crops. This clearly showed that a system based on monoculture is a biological house of cards, ready to crash at the slightest tremor.

In our current world of intensive chemical-based agriculture, a single crop is often grown in the same field for several years. The farmer relies on chemical pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizer to reduce the threat of disease and pests and boost his yield. The problem with this method of farming is that it promotes almost total reliance on the chemicals and the companies that manufacture them, for without them the farmer would have no crop. Soils in these operations are often little more than an inert medium with little to no biology, and they are certainly unable to support a healthy crop on their own. This reliance on the chemical companies is an inherently unstable and unsustainable method of farming. GMO agriculture takes this even further by forcing farmers to buy seed from the biotech firms year after year and sign technology agreements prohibiting them from saving seed. This has the effect of creating complete and utter reliance on the biotech company, for even if the grower decides not to plant the GMO crop anymore, it has already taken up residence in his fields, and should even a few plants come back the following year, as they surely will, that farmer’s crop is the intellectual property of the biotech firm. The farmer would be liable for patent infringement should he attempt to sell any of his crop that contained the genetic traits of the GMO seed, even if he is unaware of the contamination.

The Center for Food Safety wrote a pamphlet in 2005 entitled Monsanto vs. US Farmers. This document details the methods by which Monsanto has increased their control over most commodity crops in the US through the spread of their GMO seeds based on their Roundup-Ready technology. Monsanto has a long history of less-than-savory business practices, and I would urge anyone interested in knowing more about them to watch the documentary The World According to Monsanto, which can be found on Youtube for free, but their all-out assault on farmers in America is truly shocking.  Monsanto has engaged in a campaign of threats, intimidation, and litigation against farmers throughout the US – all in the name of protecting their intellectual property.

Here is a brief picture of what happens when Monsanto’s GMO seeds are planted in an agricultural region. First, Monsanto begins to sell their GMO seed in a new area. Initially, only a few farmers try the technology, excited by Monsanto’s promises of “higher yields, less weeds, lower chemical costs.” At first, the farmer does see a drop in the amount of chemicals he must use on his fields, as just a few passes with Roundup over his Roundup-resistant crop is enough to kill almost all the weeds in his field while leaving the crop unharmed. Unbeknownst to the farmer, pollen and/or seeds from his GMO field are making their way into his neighbor’s fields, and are being dropped on roadsides as the crop is taken to the seed company or grain elevator. The spread of the GMO crop has already begun. More and more of his neighbors may decide to buy the seed from Monsanto and sign the technology agreement, as they have heard the stories about the farmer’s relatively weed-free fields. A few neighbors growing the same crop are skeptical, however, and they decline to plant the GMO seed. They don’t like the idea of being forced to buy the seed every year, and are inherently mistrustful of giving up too much control to a seed company. Unknown to them, their fields may have already been contaminated by the GMO seed. One farmer who declined to buy the GMO seed receives a visit one day from a man claiming to work for Monsanto. He asks the farmer about his crop – where he got his seed, where he sells his crop, how much seed he saves every year. The farmer is uncomfortable but answers the man’s questions truthfully. A few weeks later the farmers gets a letter in the mail from Monsanto saying they have tested samples of the farmer’s crop and found traces of the patented genetic traits of Monsanto’s GMO seed. Monsanto threatens legal action against the farmer. The farmer is mystified – how did they get samples of my seed? They must have trespassed on my land to get samples, he concludes. What he does not know is that Monsanto’s technology agreement gives them the legal right to investigate claims of patent infringement. Monsanto may have even gotten an anonymous tip from another grower saying they thought the farmer was growing GMO seed without signing the technology agreement, or that he was illegally saving the GMO seed. If the farmer chooses to fight the threatened lawsuit, he is risking everything – his farm, his family’s livelihood, everything. The possibility of winning is ridiculously small. Monsanto is a Fortune 500 company with an army of high- priced attorneys well-versed in this type of litigation. Even if the farmer does “win,” he faces years of court battles and attorney fees, all of which could cause the farm to fail financially anyway.

This process of entering an agricultural region, beginning the spread of the GMO technology, and aggressively pursuing litigation against farmers who knowingly or unknowingly violate the binding technology agreement has happened again and again all over America, and Oregon could be next. One North Dakota farmer summed it up when he said, “Farmers are being sued for having GMOs on their property that they did not buy, do not want, will not use and cannot sell.” Farmers in some areas of the country are now mistrustful of their neighboring farmers. Are they growing GMOs? Have they contaminated my fields? Will I be visited by Monsanto soon? Have they themselves reported me? This culture of paranoia and fear has already been created in many areas of the country. Do we want this type of environment in Oregon? For the sake of our farmers – organic AND conventional, the answer must be NO.

Some may argue that if a farmer wants to protect themselves from this type of harassment and threat of litigation, simply don’t buy Monsanto’s seed or sign an agreement with them. As I have previously explained, that is simply not possible for many farmers with GMO crops nearby. The GMO seed can, and will, contaminate neighboring fields very easily. Even if there is little to no pollen drift, the seed can co-mingle in a grain bin, at the seed cleaning warehouse, etc. There is simply no way to guarantee that the GMO seed will not contaminate the region into which it is brought. The industry itself knows that contamination is inevitable, but they don’t publicize this fact because contamination plays right into their hands. Contaminated ground is ground that the biotech firm “owns” because of their patents on the seed. As a matter of fact, it has already heavily contaminated large areas of America. It is now extremely difficult to find non-GMO varieties, or even conventional varieties without traces of GE traits, of corn, soybeans, canola, and cotton.

For the last 6 years we have been dealing directly with this conflict in the form of GMO sugar beets. Most of the sugar beet seed in America is grown in the Willamette Valley. In 2006 two of the largest sugar beet seed companies, West Coast Beet Seed and Betaseed, began selling Roundup-Ready sugar beet seed to growers in the valley. In just over 3 years the percentage of seed grown in the valley containing the Roundup-Ready technology went from zero to 95 percent. The growers were told by the seed companies to get on board or get out of the business. This decision to adopt the Roundup-Ready technology has created deep divides in the specialty seed industry. The Willamette Valley Specialty Seed Association (WVSSA) is a group of growers engaged in growing various forms of high-value seed. Vegetable seed is the primary crop of this group, but sugar beets fall into this category as well. When the sugar beet seed companies began selling the GMO seed in 2006, the association was not informed until AFTER the first planting and harvest had been completed. The sugar beet contingent in the WVSSA sought to have the buffer zone around their beets extended to 6 miles to “protect themselves from lawsuits.” They were fully aware of the potential for cross-contamination, and the associated threat to growers of chard and table beets, both conventional and organic. Organic seed growers in particular are facing huge risks in this environment. If the GMO sugar beets contaminate a nearby field of a crop such as swiss chard or table beets, the organic grower is unable to sell his crop in some of the most lucrative markets in the world, for buyers such as Japan and the EU do not buy GMO seeds. In an ironic twist, the canola issue has shown that some members of the WVSSA, even though they themselves are potentially threatened by GMO sugar beet contamination, have decided to overlook the issue so as not to lose the support of the sugar beet growers in their battle against the canola growers in the valley. The canola debate began in large part in 2005 when my family’s farm sought a permit to grow canola south of Corvallis for on-farm biodiesel production. After an outcry from the WVSSA, the ODA decided not to grant the permit for canola. The WVSSA argued that allowing any canola to be commercially grown in the valley threatened their business, as much of the canola seed is contaminated with GMO traits, and canola is seen as a noxious weed that spreads far too easily. It can also cross with many of the WVSSA’s highest-value vegetable varieties such as broccoli, cabbage, kale, and radishes. The WVSSA argued that they would immediately lose markets in the EU and Japan if canola were grown on a commercial scale, even before any possible contamination happened. Their buyers would not tolerate the presence of large amounts of canola in the valley. I now believe that the ODA was right not to grant our request. This valley is far too valuable as a vegetable seed-growing region to threaten it with potentially damaging plants like canola and GMO sugar beets. Why, then, has the WVSSA not closed ranks around its organic seed growers and conventional growers who do NOT wish to see GMO sugar beets grown in the valley? Are they not as great a threat to the specialty seed growers and the crops they grow as canola?

The USDA recently held a hearing at OSU about the potential deregulation of sugar beets. At the beginning of the meeting a dozen or so growers of sugar beets from the midwest got up to say essentially the same thing – that they needed the Roundup-Ready technology to compete globally, that their ability to continue operating as family farms was threatened if they were prohibited from growing Roundup-Ready sugar beets, and so on. They assured everyone in the room that they had systems in place to prevent the spread of GMO sugar beets. They said there wouldn’t be any contamination or volunteer sugar beets showing up in neighboring fields. After the line of farmers supporting GMO sugar beets was done speaking, a member of a large specialty seed company from the valley got up and said, “we have already seen contamination of our swiss chard and table beets from GE traits.” Right after that a farmer from Brownsville got up to speak and held up a young sugar beet. He said this was a GMO sugar beet that volunteered on his land – land that only a few years before had grown a GMO sugar beet crop by the previous landowner. The room was stunned. Everything the dozen farmers had just said defending GMO sugar beets was rendered moot. This conflict is a prime example of what happens when GMOs are brought into a growing region. It pits grower against grower in a fight to see who has the right to grow what. Unfortunately, the steady march of GMOs and the contamination they bring means that eventually no one will have a choice. The seed will become contaminated, and we will lose the ability to grow pure strains of food crops. The sugar beet industry is now telling organic growers, “your customers need to tolerate a certain level of GMO contamination – it’s inevitable.”

GMO sugar beets are not the only present threat to Oregon farmers. GMO alfalfa has been federally deregulated and is now being grown here and elsewhere. This is a huge threat to the organic dairy industry in particular, as alfalfa hay is a major source of cattle feed. To remain certified organic, a dairy farmer needs to source only certified organic feed for his cattle. Now, every batch of alfalfa seed purchased for planting must be tested, says Organic Valley co-op member Jon Bansen, a dairy farmer from Monmouth. He discussed his concerns with me at his farm last month. Jon says that Organic Valley, a dairy co-op begun in Wisconsin nearly 30 years ago, and now 1700 farmers strong, is so concerned about the threat of GMO alfalfa that they have set up a mandatory testing procedure for alfalfa seed. All seed purchased by Organic Valley growers to plant alfalfa fields must be tested for GMO contamination. This places a large economic burden on the growers. “The GMO concerns are driving customers to Organic Valley’s milk, so the GMO threat is directly attacking our foundation, ” Jon says. Again, we see an example of the press of GMOs. They place all the risk on the organic and conventional growers threatened by contamination. All of the risk, and zero benefits – where is the protection for these growers? A simple risk/benefit analysis would indicate that this is unfair at best, and downright criminally negligent at worst.

GMO sugar beets and alfalfa, while themselves dangerous to entire farming systems, could pale next to the economic impact of Monsanto’s next GMO crop that they are currently attempting to bring into the Northwest. Wheat is now on their agenda. This could have massive implications for farmers and consumers not just here in Oregon and Washington, but around the world as well. Wheat is one of our most valuable crops in terms of total dollar sales – particularly for export.  The vast majority of wheat grown in Oregon and Washington is soft white wheat. Soft white wheat is in high demand in Asia, where it is made into crackers, noodles, etc. Two of the largest buyers of Pacific Northwest wheat, Japan and South Korea, do not buy GMO crops. What, then, would happen to the wheat industry if GMO wheat were planted here? We would face a major crisis. Overnight, most of the export dollars for our wheat would dry up. Coexistence is often touted by the industry as something we need to prepare for. In the case of wheat in particular, that is not possible. Consider that most of the wheat grown in Oregon and Washington for export gets taken down the Columbia River to Portland, where it is loaded on ships bound for Asia. An employee of a major grain terminal told me last year that there is no way to separate out GMO wheat from non-GMO wheat. The infrastructure is simply not equipped to deal with 2 streams of wheat. What happens when a ship gets turned away in Japan because its cargo is found to be contaminated with GMOs? Monsanto made a push in 2004 for the acceptance of Roundup-Ready wheat in the Northwest. They were rebuffed largely because the buyers in Japan and South Korea said they would not buy Pacific Northwest wheat if it contained GMO traits. The people do not want GMO wheat, yet Monsanto continues to push. I recently spoke with the Japan liaison at the Wheat Marketing Center in Portland, and he informed me that the position of the Japanese has not changed. They will not purchase our wheat should it be contaminated with GMO traits. It is not only organic wheat growers who are threatened by contamination. This threat to the huge conventional wheat industry in the Northwest cannot be overlooked.

We have seen that GMOs present a significant threat to our farming industries, both organic and conventional alike. The culture of litigation and threats that comes with the presence of GMOs is already here in Oregon, and it will only get worse. Lawsuits are being filed to protect the organic integrity of farms. Farmers such as Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed in Philomath have had some success in battling Monsanto and the USDA in court, yet the GMO sugar beets are still in the ground. To have any real and lasting success we need a groundswell of public support speaking out against GMOs and the threat they represent to our farmers. We owe it to ourselves and to our children to ensure our seed heritage remains untainted by the press of corporate greed. If we do nothing, then 20 years from now our incredibly diverse and productive state will be overrun by monocultures and herbicide-resistant weeds. Small organic farms, and indeed conventional non-GMO farms will be pushed out by the crush of genetically engineered crops grown by large farms doing the bidding of the biotech firms.

“The basis for genetic modification is ownership of the seed.”  Steve Jones – Internationally recognized wheat breeder – Washington State University

“Their tactic is contaminate, then negotiate.”  Frank Morton – Owner – Wild Garden Seeds and WVSSA member

“What organic farmers are most concerned about is loss of market due to factors beyond their control.”

“Letting in a GMO crop is like putting a lion in a cage full of little ducks.” Jon Bansen – Dairy Farmer and member of Organic Valley Dairy Co-op

Center for Food Safety – Monsanto vs. US Farmers (2005)

The World According to Monsanto

Published by Dairy Creek Community Food Web

Non-profit focused on connecting food systems for the common good...especially for hungry people.

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