|Farmers Fight to Save
by Ben Lilliston
For the last four years,
Nebraska organic farmer David Vetter has been testing his corn for a new
kind of pollution. Situated right in the middle of corn country, Vetter's
280-acre farm is small compared to those of his neighbors. All around him
are farmers growing genetically modified corn. And that poses a problem.
Corn is an open-pollinating crop. Wind and insects can carry pollen from
a few yards to several miles.
Last year, Vetter's organic
corn tested positive for genetic contamination. "We've been letting customers
who buy in bulk know the situation," says Vetter. "Right now, most of it
is still sitting in storage on the farm."
Susan Fitzgerald and her
husband operate a 1,300-acre farm outside Hancock, Minnesota. Last year,
Fitzgerald's 100 acres of organic corn showed evidence of genetic contamination,
as did her neighbor's organic corn crop. The pollen had traveled more than
120 feet from another neighbor's farm. Instead of selling her organic corn
for approximately,$4 a bushel, she had to sell her crop on the open market
for $1.67. Vetter and the Fitzgeralds are not alone. Organic farmers are
having an increasingly difficult time preventing genetically modified organisms
(GMOs) from migrating into their fields. And organic food companies are
struggling to ensure the integrity of their products. For consumers who
demand organic foods, the alarm bells are ringing.
In April, The Wall Street
Journal tested twenty food products labeled "GMO free" and found that sixteen
of them contained at least traces of genetically modified ingredients;
five had significant amounts. One of the companies testing positive, albeit
with trace amounts, was Nature's Path Foods, the largest organic cereal
company in the world.
"We have found traces in
corn that has been grown organically for ten to fifteen years," Arran Stephens,
president of Nature's Path Foods, told The New York Times in June.
"Theres no wall high enough to keep the stuff contained."
Biotechnology, utilized primarily
on large industrialized farms, splices genes from other plant and animal
species into seeds to produce a variety of desired traits, including the
ability to withstand exposure to pesticides and even to produce their own
pesticides. The most popular genetically modified crops grown in the United
States are soybeans, corn, cotton, and canola. Approximately 68 percent
of all soybeans and 26 percent of all corn is genetically engineered in
the United States, according to June statistics from the U.S. Department
But this is counting only
those crops that are designed by genetic engineering, not those that are
contaminated by it.
How much contamination is
taking place on organic fields is an unanswered question. "For certain
crops, it is absolutely pervasive," says David Gould, an organic certification
specialist. "Virtually all of the seed corn in this country has at least
a trace of GMO contamination and often more. Canola is as bad if not worse.
Soy is very problematic, too."
Other crops may also pose
risks. Squashes, sugar beets, tomatoes, and potatoes have been approved
for bioengineering. "These are not wide-spread yet," says Gould. "Just
give them time, and they'll be a problem, too."
Organic Trade Association
Executive Director Katherine D'Matteo says there is some misunderstanding
about what organic products are. "We've built the expectation that there
is a purity in the world, and even the slightest contamination is a disaster,"
"We're seeing traces appearing
somewhat more frequently in organic, but we're not seeing an escalation
to high percentages," says John Fagan, CEO of Genetic ID, a firm that tests
food for many organic and conventional food companies. "If you compare
organic with conventional, it is orders of magnitude cleaner."
Genetic contamination can
come through the sharing of equipment like combines, elevators, or trucks.
And it can also come through seeds. "It is very difficult to find clean
seed," says Gould. "Without good seed, we will never be able to produce
Jim Riddle, Secretary of
the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), encourages farmers to test
all organic seeds to ensure they are free of genetically modified ingredients
before planting. Thus far, most organic seeds have not tested positive
for this type of contamination. But the American Seed Trade Association
recently asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to establish a tolerance
level of 1 percent genetic contamination for seed that is labeled nonmodified.
"It is a pretty good clue
that the seed companies can't manage what they are doing when they ask
for a tolerance level," says Vetter. "They've come right out and admitted
that they can't guarantee non-GMO seed."
The costs associated with
trying to keep organic separated from genetically modified seed are mounting.
For farmers, it includes buffer zones, cleaning equipment, inspections
of crops and processing facilities, and frequent testing. Seed testing
costs on average about $10 a bag. After-harvest testing can cost $400 per
"A real issue at the moment
for organic farmers is the increased cost associated with testing," says
Bob Scowcroft, with the Organic Farm Research Foundation. "If you're sharing
equipment, does the neighbor have to steam clean his combine? What about
the truck and elevator if it's multi-use?"
A few years ago, there was
little incentive for organic farmers to try to find out whether or not
their crops were tainted by genetically modified organisms. Why risk the
monetary loss that could result if you discovered your crop was contaminated?
But now, most organic farmers are doing some type of testing. "Your buyers
are going to find out," says Vetter, "So farmers are going to have to test."
Another major concern is
the potential for the loss of certification that allows farmers to sell
their products as "organic." If an organic crop tests positive, a certifier
has to make a judgment call, taking into account the extent of contamination
and the farmer's efforts to stop it. The official could pull the farm's
certification, or more likely pull organic certification for the contaminated
crop, says Riddle, whose board is appointed by the USDA to oversee the
implementation of national organic rules.
"I do think the NOSB needs
to look at the threshold or rejection level issue," says Riddle. "Organic
does not mean chemical free or GMO-free, but it means GMOs are not used
in the production. Organic farmers are being penalized by the actions of
their neighbors. The tolerance level should be very low."
While the United States does
not have set tolerance levels for organic food, there are some relevant
standards in other countries. In Europe, any food with a content of 1 percent
or higher of genetically modified ingredients must be labeled as such.
In Japan, the rule is 5 percent or higher. In an effort to avoid the labeling
requirement, food companies in Japan and Europe are rejecting crops that
exceed these thresholds. According to Fagan of Genetic ID, organic companies
in Europe and Japan are strict about genetically altered content, with
most companies unwilling to accept anything with a 0.1 percent threshold
Organic food grown in the
United States is fast becoming a major export. According to the Organic
Trade Association, the United States exports more than $40 million in organic
goods to the United Kingdom and an estimated $40 to $60 million to Japan
each year. The association estimates that U.S. organic exports to Europe
are growing by 15 percent per year, and by 30 to 50 percent per year to
Most other countries expect
that organic products coming from the United States will be free of genetically
modified ingredients. But that situation could change. In 1999, Europe
rejected corn chips manufactured by the Wisconsin company Terra Prima because
of genetic contamination. The event cost the company hundreds of thousands
Organic is the fastest expanding
sector of the domestic food business--growing a whopping 20 percent every
year since 1990. There are 7,800 certified organic farms in the United
States, up from 6,600 in 1999, according to the Organic Farm Research Foundation.
Organic sales will likely increase from an estimated $5.4 billion in 1998
to more than $9 billion in 2001, according to Datamonitor, the food industry
Organic foods are popular
with consumers who prefer natural ingredients and worry about the health
hazards of pesticides, synthetic hormones, and other aspects of industrial
agriculture.But if consumers cannot be assured that they are getting organic
products free of genetically modified ingredients, the market may diminish.
In 1997, when the U.S. Department
of Agriculture proposed national standards that would have considered genetically
modified crops to be organic, nearly 300,000 people submitted comments
denouncing the plan. A major selling point of organic foods has been that
the standard disallows genetically modified organisms. Many organic food
companies, like Nature's Path, Eden Foods, Erewhon, and Gardenburger, tout
this claim on their labels.
Last December, the organic
community roundly hailed the conclusion of a tortuous ten-year process
to develop national standards for organic food production. While the final
standard explicitly excluded genetically modified crops, it was decidedly
vague on the issue of contamination. The rules appear to allow some genetic
impurities, although they do not specify how much. The rules state, "The
presence of a detectable residue of a product of excluded methods [like
genetic alterations] alone does not necessarily constitute a violation
of this regulation. . . . The unintentional presence of the products should
not affect the status of an organic product or operation."
Because of difficulties in
ensuring that food is free of genetically modified ingredients, the Food
and Drug Administration's new regulations on genetically modified organisms,
announced in January, do not allow companies to claim that their products
are "GMO-free." Instead, labels will have to say that the food was not
produced through bioengineering.
The demand for crops that
have not been genetically modified has increased dramatically since an
unapproved yellow corn called StarLink was found in a taco shell last year.
StarLink, which is genetically engineered to contain the pesticide Bt in
every cell, had been approved for animal feed but not for human consumption
because of concerns about dangerous allergic reactions. StarLink has since
been found in nearly 300 consumerproducts, and the EPA estimates it will
take up to four years before StarLink is completely out of the food system.
"StarLink has made a big
difference in terms of understanding how farm contamination can happen,"
says D'Matteo. "And it showed how the government didn't have controls in
According to The Washington
Post. "The presence of StarLink in a white corn product illustrates how
difficult it is to keep genetically modified crops from spreading," reported
the Post on July 4. "White corn is grown and distributed separately from
yellow corn, and industry observers said there are no genetically modified
varieties. But they also said it has proven impossible to prevent some
commingling of conventional and modified, as well as white and yellow,
corn. The mixing, they said, could happen at processing plants, during
transportation, and during cross-pollination in fields."
On July 27, the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency announced that it would not establish a tolerance level
for StarLink in human foods. This move, opposed by the food industry, effectively
bans StarLink from U.S. grocery shelves and mandates testing of corn entering
the food supply.
Organic farmers are fighting
back. Many family farm groups throughout the country are interested in
pushing for legislation that would clearly identify the seed maker, rather
than the farmer, as liable for contamination.
Politicians have introduced
bills in the U.S. Congress and more than a dozen states that would require
labeling of genetically modified foods and stronger pre-market safety testing
requirements. Some of the bills would assign liability to seed companies
"The consumers' right to
know what is in the food they eat and how it is made must be protected.
The FDA is much too busy protecting the profits of the biotech food companies,"
says Representative Dennis Kucinich, Democrat of Ohio.
The Maine legislature passed
a bill in May that would require manufacturers or seed dealers of genetically
engineered plants, plant parts, or seeds to provide written instructions
to all growers on how to plant, grow, and harvest the crops to minimize
potential cross-contamination. The Maine bill is the first of its kind
in the country.
But the future integrity
of organic products may well be decided in the courtroom. There is no case
law related to genetically altered crops, and no laws have passed (although
several have been introduced at the state and federal level) assigning
liability. In the past, U.S. courts have ruled against pesticide companies
for pesticide drift. Farmers hope they would do the same for genetic drift.
Organic farmers also have
been active in lawsuits against the Environmental Protection Agency. One
suit, filed in October 1999, demands that the EPA withdraw all genetically
modified Bt crops, including StarLink.
Genetically modified Bt crops
insert an engineered version of a natural soil bacterium, known as bacillus
thurengensis (Bt), into the crop. Organic farmers sometimes used Bt in
spray form as a last option to deal with certain pests like the corn borer.
But many in the scientific community, and the EPA itself, fear that genetically
modified Bt crops will speed up resistance to Bt, thereby rendering the
natural spray that organic farmers use ineffective.
A class action lawsuit filed
by farmers who did not grow StarLink seeks compensation for lost export
markets associated with the scandal. The lawsuit, filed last December,
alleges that StarLink's manufacturer, Aventis, failed to follow the EPA
registration for StarLink corn and neglected to take other precautions
to prevent StarLink corn from entering the human food supply chain. As
a result, the suit claims, there has been widespread contamination of the
U.S. corn crop with StarLink, which has in turn resulted in a loss of export
and domestic markets for U.S. corn and a depression in U.S. corn prices.
The suit, filed in Illinois, seeks compensatory and punitive damages, as
well as injunctive relief requiring Aventis to decontaminate all soil,
farming equipment, storage equipment, harvest equipment, transportation
facilities, grain elevators, and non-StarLink seed supplies to prevent
Another lawsuit, this one
against Monsanto, charges, among other things, that the company failed
to test genetically modified seeds and crops adequately before releasing
them into the food supply. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of farmers by the
Washington, D.C., law firm Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld, & Toll, also
charges that Monsanto, together with other companies, formed a global cartel
to fix prices on genetically modified seeds and conspired to restrain trade
in the GMO corn and soybeanmarket.
Monsanto disputes that the
seeds haven't been adequately tested. "This action is another in a series
of unsuccessful attempts by veteran antagonists to stop a technology with
the potential to improve our environment, increase food production, and
improve health," said David Snively, assistant general counsel for Monsanto.
"We're confident this suit will be dismissed."
The courts won't necessarily
work to the advantage of the organic farmers. Many in the organic community
are still talking about the Percy Schmeiser case, decided earlier this
year in Canada. Monsanto sued Schmeiser for growing Roundup Ready Canola.
Schmeiser claimed that he had not purchased the seed and that pollen had
drifted from a neighbor's farm. The Canadian court ruled that it didn't
matter whether the material drifted or not. Schmeiser, it said, was infringing
on Monsanto's patent rights. The court ordered him to pay $105,000 to Monsanto.
"If U.S. courts allowed biotech
companies to sue organic farmers for selling their contaminated crops,
organic farmers could be found liable to pay damages to the contaminating
companies. In essence, this would amount to requiring organic farmers to
pay for the nuisance caused by these biotech companies," wrote San Francisco
attorneys Robert Uram and Giselle Vigneron in a recent analysis of the
Farmers like Vetter and the
Fitzgeralds are going to extraordinary measures to prevent the contamination
of their crops. The Fitzgeralds have planted mostly wheat and soybeans,
and have tried to use buffers when their neighbors planted genetically
Vetter tried to stagger his
planting time with his neighbors'. "Because we knew the chances of cross-pollination
were great, we tried to offset planting dates with our neighbors," Vetter
says. "We hoped that they would plant early, and we waited as long as we
could to plant."
Susan Fitzgerald hopes that
organic farmers can work together with conventional farmers interested
in planting crops that have not been genetically altered. "We don't want
to make enemies," she says. "But we want to defend our right to grow GMO-free