Courtesy Getty Images/AbleStock.com/ Thinkstock
Sustainable-agriculture advocates and organic farmers express concern over the protections for genetically engineered crops outlined in the House's version of the new Farm Bill.
When the House of Representatives’ version of the 2012 Farm Bill made its way out of committee earlier this month, it did so with the addition of several provisions designed to ensure the rapid movement of genetically engineered crops from biotechnology labs to farmers’ fields.
Opponents of the legislation have named the proposed changes to the Plant Protection Act the "Monsanto riders,” a reference to the world’s largest producer of bioengineered seeds, including soybeans and sugar beets developed to tolerate the glyphosate herbicide Roundup (also a Monsanto product).
In a July 10, 2012, press release, the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit that advocates against industrial agriculture methods that harm human health and the environment, outlined key provisions of the riders, including earlier deadlines for USDA approval of GE crops, stricter limits on environmental reviews of GE crops, removal of protections on farmers (including cross-contamination losses), and the establishment of an "acceptable” level of GE contamination of non-GE crops.
The Center for Food Safety was among 40 businesses and advocacy groups to cosign a July 10, 2012, letter to the House agriculture committee that criticized the proposals.
"Purposely buried in the voluminous Farm Bill, these significant changes to the Plant Protection Act will create serious risks to farmers, the environment and public health by forcing the rushed commercialization of GE crops and eliminating meaningful review of their impacts,” the authors wrote.
At present, most GE seeds are used by large-scale, commodity farms that produce crops such as alfalfa, canola, corn, canola, soybeans and sugar beets. Nonetheless, sustainable-agriculture advocates say the deregulation of GE seeds is a topic that should be on the minds of all farmers and consumers.
Mindy Harris, public relations coordinator for the Northeast Organic Farming Association/Massachusetts Chapter, says the proliferation of GE crops threatens non-GE farms of all sizes "because, like any seeds, they spread through natural processes. Once you’ve introduced them into an environment, they’re impossible to contain.”
The natural spread of these unnatural seeds via wind and insect pollinators endangers the integrity of neighboring farms, says Ed Stockman, a biologist and anti-GE activist who operates a certified organic u-pick berry farm.
"If [genetically-modified organism] farmers kept their GMO pollen on their farms and the foods produced from [their] crops were labeled, I probably would not be as concerned,” Stockman says. "Genetic contamination of non-GMO seeds, crops and animal feeds by GMO crops is the greatest threat to non-GMO and organic agriculture as well as every backyard gardener that wants to grow and eat uncontaminated food.”
In addition to adulterating non-GE farmers’ products, the movement of GE pollen can land growers in legal trouble, Harris says. Monsanto and other GE seed producers hold patents on their creations.
"There are many farmers nationwide who … have been sued by Monsanto … for possession of GMO seeds on their property,” Harris says. "In many cases, the farmers were in possession of these seeds unknowingly and are the subject of devastating lawsuits due to this contamination.”
She adds that NOFA/Mass is participating in OSGATA v. Monsanto, a lawsuit "asking for protections for small farmers to prevent them from being sued for patent infringement … due to unwanted contamination.”
There’s reason to believe the reach of GE technology won’t always be limited to large-scale commodity crops, according to Jack Kittredge, NOFA/Mass policy director and owner of Many Hands Organic Farm in Barre, Mass.
"A major unnoticed effort of Monsanto has been to buy up vegetable seed companies and reduce the diversity of seed varieties that are available for sale,” Kittredge says. This will have the effect of homogenizing food crops and their characteristics. "Seed companies used to keep many varieties of seed available for farmers in diverse conditions—wet, dry, cold, warm, et cetera. The acquisition movement among seed houses is accompanied by dropping many of these diverse varieties. … If this continues, we will not have enough non-modified seeds to plant for many other vegetable varieties.”
Stockman says he is heartened that consumers are educating themselves about the risk of GE crops and their byproducts.
"Over the last few years, my customers have become increasingly aware and concerned about GMO crops and food,” he says. "Health and environmental concerns, as well as labeling issues, are often discussed at my farm.”
Stockman encourages non-GE farmers to educate themselves and their customers about the dangers of GE crops and the necessity for transparent labeling of GE ingredients.
"[Farmers] need to talk to their customers,” he says. "If many of us become concerned about GMO contamination of our food and the environment and stop purchasing foods with GMO ingredients, then corporate profits will suffer. Cutting into corporate profits gets their attention.”
He recommends the Non-GMO Shopping Guide as a resource for consumers who want to send a message with their pocketbooks.
Harris adds there are numerous opportunities for farmer-activists who want to organize against GMOs, including the Occupy Monsanto movement. On the morning of June 18, 2012, NOFA/Mass participated in Occupy Monsanto’s sidewalk session outside the BIO International Convention, an annual gathering hosted by the Biotechnology Industry Organization. Harris, Stockman and Kittredge all spoke at the event.
The Northeast Organic Farming Association will also offer an anti-GE activism training session Aug. 9, 2012, in Amherst, Mass., as a lead-up to the NOFA 2012 Summer Conference. The session will be led by conference keynote speaker Jeffrey Smith, a noted author and anti-GE activist.