May 29, 2014

Thoughts on Avoiding GMO Contamination

Last week, voters in a couple of Oregon counties voted to ban genetically modified crops (GMOs). Since 2002, towns, cities, and counties across the United States have passed resolutions controlling the use of GMOs within their jurisdiction. Close to 100 New England towns have passed resolutions regulating the use of GMOs. In 2004, three California counties passed ordinances banning the raising of genetically modified crops and livestock. So, we do have a few GMO-free zones in the United States.

But the fact of the matter is that GMO crops can contaminate non-GMO crops, despite the best efforts of all farmers involved. Generally, farmers could theoretically mitigate this risk using one of four strategies -
  1. Don't let anyone grow GMO crops
  2. Don't grow non-GMO crops, when contamination is possible
  3. Engage in crop management to reduce the risk of contamination
  4. Seek a compensation mechanism for such contamination losses via lawsuits, insurance, and the like.
Option 1 is not available in most of the U.S., with a few exceptions, some of which are noted above. Good luck getting any damages from your crop insurance or the legal system due to GMO contamination. So Option 4 is out. That leaves Options 2 and 3.

Whether certified organic or just practicing organic methods, most of the farmers I have spoken with have opted not to grow sweet corn. Here's why. Remember, when we eat corn on the cob, we are actually eating corn seeds, and these seeds may be the result of cross-pollination with nearby GMO-corn. As of 2013, the USDA reports that the 90% of the U.S. corn crop was GMO (actually they say nothing about GMO, rather they call it biotechnology varieties). Corn is called a promiscuous pollinator. That's because it is an open and wind-pollinated crop. Wind can carry corn pollen many miles before finding and pollinating nearby corn silk. Your neighbor's corn can therefore very easily pollinate yours, making it tricky to grow pure seed from your open-pollinated, non-GMO corn. To prevent cross-pollination, the farmers I spoke with sometimes plant their sweet corn at least a month later than their neighbors, but this is problematic due to potential early frosts and not being the first to be notified of their neighbors planting decisions. For the most part, the farmers I have spoken with felt that crop management is a losing proposition when it comes to corn. Thus they have decided not to grow sweet corn.

What about other crops that aren't so promiscuous? What crop management strategies might be employed to prevent GMO contamination? Organic certification generally requires that organic farmers minimize the risk of contamination by maintaining a buffer zone that is adequate to protect crops from chemical spray drift and cross-pollination. The total acreage of this buffer depends on the drift risk of a particular field. On one farm I visited, this meant leaving a 25 foot buffer around the perimeter of their property. This represented a significant loss of usable farmland. Food and Water Watch surveyed organic farmers and reports that due to this requirement alone, the median size of buffer zones for survey respondents was about five acres and represented an associated loss of $2,500 per year, with several farmers reporting annual losses of over $20,000.

There are, of course, other requirements for organic certification, but the buffer zone is interesting in that it highlights the question of who bears the costs. Although requiring an organic farm to maintain a buffer zone at its perimeter is one possible way to mitigate contamination, there is another way to go about this - one that would be equally effective. GMO farms could be required to maintain the buffer zone and incur the corresponding losses. That seems fairer to me, since they are the ones doing the contaminating. Or, regulators who are striving for fairness, might require both parties to maintain a smaller buffer zone and split the loss. With all the corporate funds backing agricultural biotechnology, these two alternatives were probably not even up for consideration.

What happens if a farmer brings an organic crop to sell at the co-op and the buyer finds GMO contamination? The same Food and Water Watch survey found that five out of six respondents were concerned about GMO contamination impacting their farm, with 60% saying they are extremely concerned. One of three farmers have dealt with GMO contamination on their farm. Over half of these contaminated farmers have been rejected by their buyers for that reason. In one season, the median loss of a rejection due to the presence of GMO was $4,500. Sometimes farmers must pay the costs to transport the contaminated load back from the buyer. This usually costs an extra $1000-$2000 per returned load. Then they are left to spend time finding a new market for their no-longer-organic produce. Some losses are more long-term. For farmers striving for organic certification, they must meet basic organic requirements for several years, before they can become certified.

As unfair as it seems to penalize non-GMO farmers for the contamination caused by GMO farmers, two can play at this game. I have spoken with quite a few sustainable farmers about GMO issues. One suggested that their organically certified farm could plant blue corn. Their blue corn would then cross-pollinate with the GMO corn of their neighbors.  The results would be immediately visible to a casual observer in the form of blue corn seeds lightly interspersed on various ears of corn. The GMO farmer would not be able to sell their corn as planned.  Such forms of retribution would only lead to a downward spiral of rejected corn. And everybody loses in this scenario.

I grow papayas and I was surprised to see papaya on the list of crops for which farmers are now growing GMO varieties. I understand why this is so, since my papayas fall victim to just about any bacteria, virus, and disease that walk the streets in Florida. Genetically modified papayas that resist the dreaded ringspot virus would be desirable to conventional growers. And so, GMO papaya has rescued Hawaii's papaya industry from the verge of death. But, what if I want to make sure I don't grow GMO papaya? Unlike corn, most people don't eat the seeds of a papaya, so as long as I plant non-GMO seeds and eat papaya flesh, I should be okay. But what about permaculturists who want to create a low-maintenance food forest. Even if they start with non-GMO papaya, over the years, they may end up with GMO papaya. Another wrinkle to ponder.

As more and more crops are targeted for GMO adaptation and then commercialized, the decision to not grow a crop represents a loss. It is a loss of choice, leaving fewer and fewer crops from which to choose. In 2013, GMO-soy comprised 93% of the soy U.S. crop. Deciding to grow non-GMO soy in a soybean growing area would be a lost cause. A North Dakota farmer quoted in the Food and Water Watch survey, states The loss of crop options is not a direct cost, but a real one. We cannot, for example, grow organic canola as we are surrounded by hundreds of acres of GM canola - pollinated by insects - no buffer is big enough to contain cross pollination. GMO-wheat has not yet been commercialized, but when it is, another major crop might be off-limits to organic farmers.

I did point out that last week, voters in two Oregon counties passed a ballot initiative banning the cultivation of genetically engineered crops. Supporters of the measure raised about $375,000. But opponents overwhelmed them with out-of-state corporate backing to the tune of almost $1,000,000. Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont Pioneer together contributed nearly $400,000 to oppose the ban. In the past few years, a dynamic group of corporate contributors has spent large sums to defeat major state-wide ballot amendments. And they have been successful. But in Oregon, in Jackson and Josephine Counties, despite the huge influx of corporate money to defeat the initiative, a majority of voters supported the initiative, prohibiting GMO crops in their counties.

Might these campaigns be replicated across the United States? These ballot initiatives have been nothing less than a battle for the local control of democracy. And rank-and-file citizens are losing the battle. When it comes to the ability to restrict the use of pesticides, local governments once had this ability, but most states have now passed preemptive laws that override the laws of local jurisdictions. Much of that same process is now taking place vis-a-vis GMOs. State legislators who support large-scale industrial agriculture, and are often funded by associated Big Ag interests, have been sponsoring these preemption bills. Farm Bureau chapters step up to support these bills. The bills are successfully overriding protective local measures around the country. In Oregon, a bill passed last Fall prohibiting local governments from regulating genetically engineered crops. An exception was made for Jackson County, since its measure had already qualified for the ballot.

I will end with a real estate tip: now might be the time to invest in land in Jackson County, Oregon, before those who wish to grow non-GMO seeds flock to the area.