Hazardous Harvest (GMOs)

GMO TomatoWhat GMOs mean to organic growers.

By Bill Kohlhaase for Planet Natural

When U.S. District Judge for New York Naomi Buchwald threw out a lawsuit in February filed by The Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA) and dozens of other plaintiffs against the Monsanto Corporation, she struck a blow against organic growers, small farmers and concerned citizens across the country. The suit, filed in March of 2011 on behalf of organic farmers and seed growers by the Public Patent Foundation (PUBAT), was a preemptive measure designed to prohibit Monsanto from filing future lawsuit against growers whose fields may have inadvertently been contaminated by genetically-modified crops — known as GMOs — patented by Monsanto. This contamination can be caused by wind-carried seed, bird droppings, neighboring farmers losing seed in transport near a non-GMO field, or other unintended methods. Once Monsanto discovers its patented GMOs in a field where the plants volunteered even without the farmer’s knowledge, its legal team goes to work. Monsanto was quick to react to the court victory with a press release.

Genetic Trespass

The suit, known as Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association et al v. Monsanto. was filed by the Public Patent Foundation on behalf of family and organic farmers, seed businesses and other agricultural interests. “Farmers are under threat,” says Maine organic seed farmer Jim Gerritsen, President of OSGATA, at the organization’s website. “Our right to farm the way we choose, and to grow pure organic seed and healthy food on our farms for our families and for our customers is under assault.”

Also quoted on the OSGATA website, Dan Ravicher, PUBPAT’s Executive Director and Lecturer of Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York says the case asks whether Monsanto has the right to sue farmers for patent infringement if Monsanto’s transgenic seed should land on their property. “It seems quite perverse that an organic farmer contaminated by transgenic seed could be accused of patent infringement,” says Ravicher,” but Monsanto has made such accusations before and is notorious for having sued hundreds of farmers for patent infringement, so we had to act to protect the interests of our clients.”

Why perverse? Unwelcome, genetically-engineered crops showing up in an otherwise organic field are reason to cancel that farmer’s organic certification and, in effect, destroy his business. Cross-pollination with GMO plants may compromise the purity of an organic farmer’s product and ruin his seed stock. How is it fair that a corporation with over $10.5 billion dollars in annual U.S. revenues can accuse small farmers of patent infringement when the farmer has done nothing and indeed wants nothing to do with GMO contamination of his fields? Should patent law protect the corporations that introduce biological products into the environment, even when that corporation has little apparent control over the product’s distribution by natural forces?

After the suit was filed, it was joined by some 83 plaintiffs representing some 300,000 individual members. So many citizens — small farmers, organic growers, natural food suppliers and individuals who care about providing a variety of safe, healthy food for the families — are so concerned about this issue that despite the Judge Buchwald’s ruling it won’t go away anytime soon. The plaintiffs filed an appeal of the judge’s ruling on March 28. (You can see Gerritsen discuss the lawsuit here.)

Between 1997 and 2010, Monsanto sued at least 144 farmers and settled with some 700 others it accused of growing their patented GMO crops — often canola seed or soy beans — without purchase. Gag orders were imposed on those who settled. The irony here is that these growers wanted nothing to do with the GMO crops. They claim that the GMO crops trespassed on their property and grew there without their knowledge or consent. (Monsanto also prohibits farmers from saving seed from the previous year’s GMO harvest, an age-old farming practice. Seed can be fed to livestock but not replanted.)

While common sense leads one to think it’s the farmers whose fields were contaminated are the ones with the complaint, Monsanto sees it differently. Their product, resistant to their chemical weed-killer Roundup, was in effect stolen and that it’s the farmers’ responsibility to keep Monsanto’s patented seed from the property. It’s contended that the farmers found with the unwanted GMO crop growing in their fields were in violation of patent law. Montsanto, according to some of the farmers, often examined their fields under false pretense or without permission of the farmers. Monsanto was also suspected of using fellow farmers as informants, sometimes without the informants’ knowing how their information would be used. In the process of leveling accusations of conscious patent infringement against farmers whose plants exhibited shared genetic traits with Monsanto’s patented seed, they’ve confiscated crops and destroyed livelihoods in what many growers see as an assault that threatens every organic seed raiser and non-GMO farmer in the country. Despite legal proceedings and alleged intimidation, Monsanto claims to have farmers’ best interest in mind. This astro-turf, pro-farming website, is sponsored by Monsanto.

Why is this issue important? Not only because of the alleged corporate bullying. Seed growers, organic farmers and interested citizens fear the possibility that the diversity of seed crops is threatened. Organic certifications are at risk under threat of wind blown GMO seed and control of farmers’ product is at stake. Cross-pollination between GMOs and heirloom and other natural seed stock can literally mean that the non-genetically engineered plant could be pollinated out of existence. Then there’s the argument that herbicide-tolerant crops leads to the use of larger quantities of herbicides, something that’s terribly detrimental to the health of humans, wildlife and the environment at large. A further complication is the emergence of weeds — so-called “superweeds” — that have developed a resistance to herbicides. GMO cotton growers in the South have already seen a variety of pigweed that is resistant to Roundup and other glyphosate-based herbicides. Add to that the fact that many consider certain GMO food crops dangerous to the health and safety of those that consume them and you have an issue vitally important to organic growers everywhere, one that has attracted growing levels of concern and outrage.

Roots of the Problem

What are genetically modified crops? Like all genetically-modified organisms, genetically-modified plants have had their DNA changed through cross-pollination or genetic engineering. The GMOs being sold by Monsanto, Dupont and other corporations were developed in the 1980s through manipulation of DNA. As explained at the website of Romer Labs, a testing agency,”Agriculturally important plants are often genetically modified by the insertion of DNA material from outside the organism into the plant’s DNA sequence, allowing the plant to express novel traits that normally would not appear in nature, such as herbicide or insect resistance. Seed harvested from GMO plants will also contain these modifications.” What makes these plants “important” is their resistance to insects and certain herbicides. Those herbicides are often manufactured by the same company selling the genetically-modified seed.

The FlavrSavr tomato was the first genetically-altered crop meant for human consumption (an antibiotic tobacco had been developed in 1984). The FlavrSavr, developed by Calgene, now a Monsanto subsidiary, was designed to ripen without becoming soft. Consumers had to pay more for this laboratory developed tomato. But problems with its flavor and shelf-life made it unpopular.

Monsanto introduced its “Roundup Ready “soybeans in 1995. The plant was not affected by Monsanto’s powerful Roundup herbicide — a killer of nearly all broad-leaf and cereal plants — which allowed farmers to control weeds in their soybean fields without fear of killing their crop. Roundup, the top selling herbicide in the world for some 30 years, represents 10% of Monsanto’s yearly sales. Coupled with sales of Roundup resistant crops, it accounts for 50% of Monsanto’s yearly revenue.

That same year, the FDA approved the Bt potato, a potato that produces a protein that becomes a toxin in the gut of insect larvae. Since then Bt cotton and corn have been developed. While the risks of consuming Bt producing plants are inconclusive when it comes to mammals, they’ve been shown to be harmful to beneficial insects, including lacewings, and the threatened monarch butterfly. It is feared that potato beetles, the target of Bt toxins (it is also sprayed as a pesticide), will develop resistance to the bacteria that creates the protein.

The spread of GMO crops, especially in Canada and the United Sates has been astounding. Herbicide resistant soybeans account for 94 % of the soy grown in the U.S. Herbicide resistant corn accounts for 72% of the corn in the U.S. while Bt (insect resistant) corn accounts for 65% (some corn is both ht — herbicide resistant — and Bt modified). 93% of the canola grown in the U.S. is genetically-modified. World-wide, 75% of the soy, 26% of the corn and 21% of the canola is genetically modified. Other GMO crops that have been developed include sugar beets, canola, peppers and squash.

Some crops, including genetically-modified sweet potatoes, have been designed to increase yields (though in the case of the sweet potato, local varieties were found to outperform the lab-developed potato). So-called “golden rice” was engineered to provide better nutrition to those who consume it. But like other genetically-modified crops, it’s created its own set of problems.

Courting Disaster

Monsanto and the alleged dangers of some of its products — as well as its way of doing business — are the subject of movies and websites. The clearest documentation of Monsanto tactics can be seen in The Future of Food Deborah Koons Garcia’s 2004 acclaimed documentary that takes an in-depth look at GMOs and the experiences of farmers accused by Monsanto of patent infringement (see the trailer here). Monsanto is the largest, but not the only, producer of genetically modified seed in the world

Despite Judge Buchwald’s ruling, the controversy over GMOs that has been brewing across America and the world for decades will not go away. Too much is at stake. Individuals concerned about the quality of what they eat fear that foods made from GMO crops — so-called “Frankenfoods” — may be bad for one’s health. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine reports that animal studies show that problems associated with GMOs include “infertility, immune dysregulation, accelerated aging, dysregulation of genes associated with cholesterol synthesis, insulin regulation, cell signaling, and protein formation, and changes in the liver, kidney, spleen and gastrointestinal system.” While little actual human testing has been done, the implications are obvious. The AAEM concludes, “GM foods pose a serious health risk in the areas of toxicology, allergy and immune function, reproductive health, and metabolic, physiologic and genetic health and are without benefit.”

It’s difficult for consumers to know specifically which foods contain GMO products. It’s estimated that 70% of commercial foods available in the U.S. contain GMO-derived products. Often, buying — or growing — organic is the only way to avoid feeding your family GMOs. The Truth In Labeling Coalition has mounted a campaign in the United States to require the labeling of foods made from GMO products. The European Union, unlike the U.S., requires that foods utilizing any GMO product at any point in their production must be so labeled.

The champions of GMO crops see them as a solution to the world’s hunger problems. Genetically-engineered crops are a large part of the bio-tech industry and powerful forces support their use. Their claim is that genetically-engineered crops have much larger yields than natural crops. The Union of Concerned Scientists, after two decades of research, reports (PDF file) that there’s little evidence to support these claims. This leaves only two reasons for companies such as Monsanto, Dupont and others to pursue the development and sale of GMOs: market control and profit.

Greed and Weed

The pursuit of this profit endangers more than individual health and the livelihood of small farmers who choose not to grow genetically-engineered crops. GMO crops have a potential negative effect on genetic diversity in the environment at large. Genetically-engineered plants have invaded roadsides, fallow fields and even backyards. A study in South Dakota found that over 85% of roadside-growing canola plants were GMO contaminated. Worse, genetic material from the GMOs can cross-breed with non-GMO plants, resulting in mutations and uncontrolled resistance — or vulnerability to chemicals and insects. Once pure plant strains are contaminated with GMO DNA, there is no going back. The original plant ceases to exist.

Organic farmers and gardeners fear this last consequence: that the heirloom seeds they have been collecting and preserving, sometimes for generations, will be lost to genetically-engineered homogenization. This can happen through cross-fertilization, when the naturally-occurring plant mutates with genetic material from the GMOs. Or it can happen through a loss of interest on the part of seed growers, as happened with certain tomato and other vegetable varieties as hybrids were introduced in the 1940s and ’50s. Jere Gettle, co-founder of the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, describes what’s at stake in his book (co-written with Emilee Gettle) The Heirloom Life Gardner. “By the mid-nineties, a few big corporations, including Monsanto and DuPont, and the federal government started introducing genetically modified crops into the country’s seed supply at unprecedented levels. We almost ended up losing some of the greats — the giant Banana Melon, which had been offered in catalogs since 1885 and is one of the tastiest melons in the world, nearly went extinct. When you have a hobby that you’re a little obsessed with, and you notice that 10 to 15 percent of the things that you really like about it are disappearing, it makes you want to do something. I knew I needed to fight to save these seed.”

In the meantime, the march of genetically-engineered crops continues. In January 2011, the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service announced that it had granted “non-regulated” status for Roundup resistant alfalfa. “After conducting a thorough and transparent examination of alfalfa through a multi-alternative environmental impact statement (EIS) and several public comment opportunities, APHIS has determined that Roundup Ready alfalfa is as safe as traditionally bred alfalfa,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. Though some restrictions protecting organic growers and small farmer were recommended, the politics came down heavily on the side of agri-business and corporate interests.

Dow Chemical is currently seeking approval for genetically-engineering its 2,4-D resistant corn. 2,4-D is the herbicide used in the infamous Vietnam era defoliant Agent Orange. A group of growers and food processors have joined together under the banner of the Save Our Crops Coalition and have filed petition to delay the crop’s approval.

When the appeal of Judge Buchwald’s decision against the organic growers was filed, OSGATA President Gerritsen issued this statement. It seems to say it all, not just against Monsanto’s business practices but about an individual’s rights to be free of the effects of GMOs.

“Today we are seeking protection from the Court and putting Monsanto on notice,” writes Gerritsen. “Monsanto’s threats and abuse of family farmers stops here. Monsanto’s genetic contamination of organic seed and organic crops ends now. Americans have the right to choice in the marketplace — to decide what kind of food they will feed their families — and we are taking this action on their behalf to protect that right to choose. Organic farmers have the right to raise our organic crops for our families and our customers on our farms without the threat of invasion by Monsanto’s genetic contamination and without harassment by a reckless polluter. Beginning today, America asserts her right to justice and pure food.”

References:

Institute For Responsible Technology – A comprehensive website on dangers of GMOs

Dangers of GMO Foods (video)

History of Transgenic Crops – Colorado State University

GMO Compass – News on GMOs from the European Union

GM Watch – An independent organization that seeks to counter the enormous corporate political power and propaganda of the biotech industry and its supporters.

GMO Journal – Food Safety Politics

GMO-related Twitter hashtags: #OccupyBigFood, #OccupyOurFoodSupply #OccupyMonsanto, #OccupytheSeed

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