GMOs, organic: “Coexistence” in the belly of the beast

young corn rowsProtection of minority rights is a foundational principle of our republic, and it is time for this protection to be extended to those who do not wish genetic modification to contaminate the crops they grow. Genetically engineered (GE) or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been a part of the U.S. agricultural landscape for over 20 years. They have become the dominant seed grown when a GE seed variety of a crop exists. At the same time, the market for non-GMO crops continues to grow, both internationally and domestically. Non-GE crops include organic producers as well as those selling their crops as Identity Preserved (IP).

To give the USDA and Secretary Vilsack credit, they have started a conversation on how to develop systems that foster “coexistence” between GMO and non-GMO crops, asking for public comments by March 4. (See the end of this piece for details.) Secretary Vilsack put together the AC21 committee (Advisory Committee on Biotechnology & 21st Century Agriculture) to address coexistence issues, which I wrote about in the January 2013 Inside Organics blog ( policywork/inside-organics-blog).

While it is good to have this conversation, in many ways the real issues are not part of the current discussion. Compensation mechanisms have been proposed that take effect when a producer cannot sell his crop into his chosen market due to GMO contamination. But, there is no discussion for the damage suffered by livestock producers who feed their own crops that might be contaminated. The current dis­cussion also fails to look at the environmental damage caused by the use of GMO technology, and avoids the fact that little testing is done on GMO crops to determine long-term effects on livestock and human health.

In addition, the current discussion does not address the difficulties faced by non-GMO farmers when dealing with GE crops. When the genetic modification is in every speck of pollen, dust and crop residue, it makes the impact of these crops go way beyond just herbicide resistance or the “control” of targeted insect pests. Instead, this genetic modification can move into the seed stock of non-GMO crops through wind-blown pollen, and can be found in loads of non-GMO grains as GMO-contaminated dust in harvest, transport, processing or packaging. It can negatively affect pollinators and aquatic ecosystems through loss of habitat and/or the insecticides present in GMO crop and residues.

The USDA’s Coexistence Goals

Identify successful methods of communicating with farmers about coexistence.

Farmers can learn how to lessen the risk of GMO contamination through a variety of sources, such as publications from the University of Minnesota and the new Protect­ing Organic Seed Integrity manual from the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (see the end of this piece for details). However, this puts the burden on the non-GMO farmer and not on the GMO technology that caused the problem in the first place.

Communicating with GMO farmers to have them follow simple planting protocols has been shown to be ineffective. Brochures, blog posts, discussion forums—none of these is as important as preventing contamination with mandated protocols or by not introduc­ing GMO varieties with a potential to cause contamination in the first place.

When Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) corn was first introduced, farmers who purchased this GMO seed had to sign an agreement that they would plant 10% of their acres to non-GMO corn to lessen the likelihood of insect resis­tance to Bt. Even though many farmers signed these contracts, they knew no one would verify they had planted a refuge area, and many of the required refuges were not planted. The biotech companies did nothing to enforce that contract provision. Here was a method of communication where every one of the farm­ers who purchased the GMO technology was informed of the planting requirements, yet still these requirements were not followed.

In order for coexistence to work, communica­tion is a very small part of the issue. Instead the biotechnology companies and the USDA must take the contamination and damage caused by the GMO products more seriously. If there are protocols, they should be mandated and enforced. That said, we also must acknowl­edge the fickleness of weather and other aspects of farming, which makes it difficult if not impossible to follow some types of protocols. The farmers who plant GMO seeds are not to blame for contamination—the patent holders who sell the damaging product are.

Pesticide drift is also an issue for organic farm­ers and others. Most states have pesticide laws that are enforced when a pesticide is known to have moved from the targeted area across the property line to another field. Depending on the state, the fines levied per occurrence may or may not be sufficient to prevent repeat events. This would be an example of a feedback model that has shown some effectiveness in preventing contamination.

Education and possible “outreach toolkits” that would be useful in promoting coexistence.

One thought would be to require all farmers who plant GMO crops to attend and pass a class that discusses GMO contamination prevention protocols, similar to pesticide applicator training classes. That would put the responsibility back on the party that is using the potentially damaging product, rather than on the non-GMO farmer.

This section also talks about how to share geographic information to show where various agricultural systems are being used. In the Upper Midwest, we already have these kinds of resources: both Driftwatch and an Iowa reg­istry allow specialty crop growers, beekeepers and organic growers to identify their fields so pesticide applicators can avoid them. However, there is no mandate that requires pesticide applicators to refer to these registries before spraying.

There is no registry to track where GMO farmers are growing their crops. The burden is on the non-GMO farmers to figure out who farms neighboring fields, and what’s planted there. With the majority of land being operated by nonresident landowners or custom operators hired by large operations to perform various activities, it has become difficult to find out exactly who is buying the seed and planting it. It is a huge burden for the non-GMO farmer to find and discuss planting protocols and other issues with whomever it is managing neighbor­ing land.

The USDA proposed a system to provide infor­mation on planting dates, isolation distances, understanding the risk of gene flow, and other possible data and production methods to aid farmers in reaching coexistence. While this information would be useful, to date, it has been the non-GMO farmer that bears the brunt of managing buffer zones or delaying planting so their crop will not cross pollinate with GMO crops in the neighborhood. Coexis­tence should result in a more balanced sharing of the burden between the various agricultural sectors, with at minimum, compensation for non-GMO farmers when they must modify their planting systems, resulting in lowered yields and economic returns.

Foster collaboration between various agricultural sectors, and build a system that works for both GMO and non-GMO farmers.

Before we recommend factors that may prevent or promote broad adoption of voluntary solu­tions to GE contamination, we need to step back and look at how rural society works. Even when folks do not get along, they strive to be civil and respectful with each other. Their kids go to school and play basketball or softball together; they attend the same churches; they rely on neighbors to help pull a car out of a ditch in a snowstorm or help with chores when the electricity goes out. The last thing any farmer wants to do is mandate how a neighbor must farm, especially when lawsuit or fines might result if someone does not keep an agreement. Also, farming is not an exact activ­ity—someone may plan to plant on a certain date, but rain or other unfavorable planting weather can disrupt those plans. And, some­times there are not enough hours in the day to get all of the manure or fertilizer spread, fields tilled, or planting done.

For these reasons, it is important not to pit farmer against farmer when planning for coexistence. Instead, we need to look to the patent holders of the technology that causes the problems of GMO drift and makes coexis­tence difficult in the countryside.

Unfortunately, prevention of GMO contamina­tion through a moratorium on further releases of GMO crops into our environment does not seem to be part of the discussion within the USDA. We continue to see more GMO crops developed to address the inherent flaws of this technology, which has created “super insects” resistant to the insecticide present in the crop, or “super weeds” resistant to the herbicides used in tandem with the GMO crops.

Even the biotechnology companies knew that resistance was going to make their “wonder crops” obsolete in a few years. The stacking of numerous insecticides in one seed to deal with resistance, as well as the proposed approval of 2,4-D herbicide-resistant corn and soybeans show that the companies and their scientists who develop and sell these GMO seeds are themselves ignoring the basic fundamentals of science and biology. The more this technology is introduced into our environment, the less effective the commonly used materials become. This leads to the use of more toxic materials over time to deal with resistant insects and weeds.

How can GMO and non-GMO farmers coexist? There are no easy answers here due to the pervasiveness of GMOs in our landscape. However, we must continue to shift the con­versation away from recommendations that require farmers to modify what they are doing, and put the burden back on the biotechnology industry. Lastly, as organic farmers know, these GMO seeds are unnecessary when agricultural management works with rather than against natural systems. We should be supporting sustainable weed and insect management rather than this failed GMO seed technology.

The USDA’s Agricultural Coexistence comment period ends March 4. However, you still can send letters at any time to the office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary:

U.S. Department of Agriculture

Attention: Secretary Tom Vilsack

1400 Independence Avenue SW, Room 200-A

Washington DC 20250

Phone: 202-720-3631

Additional Resources

Protecting Organic Seed Integrity  OSGATA Manual

GMO Contamination Prevention, What Does it Take  Jim Riddle, University of Minnesota

March | April 2014

HarrietHarriet Behar is a MOSES Organic Specialist. She represents MOSES in the National Organic Coalition and the National Sustainable Agricuture Coalition.



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