It's a lawless land when it comes to containing GM

(But even legalese can't contain promiscuous plants and wily wildlife)

By Tobin Hack

You’ve seen them lingering in the aisles of your local health food grocery store, deep in thought. Painstakingly conscientious shoppers who can easily spend 20 minutes choosing the cereal that’s best for the planet and for their bodies. No added sugars: check. Fiber content: check. Organic: check. But when it comes to choosing products free of genetically modified (GM) materials, what many shoppers don’t know is that the USDA isn’t protecting consumers or organic farmers.

Like any seeds, GM or GE (genetically engineered) seeds—ubiquitous in US food markets today—cannot be confined to the fields in which they’re planted. Pollinating insects and lightweight seeds that blow on the wind will always obey nature rather than man-made boundaries. Inevitable human error—insufficiently cleaned trucks or grain elevators—will also always lead to some amount of GM contamination. “It’s actually absolutely impossible to contain genetically engineered crops,” says Craig Holdrege, author of Beyond Biotechnology: The Barren Promise of Genetic Engineering, and director and senior researcher for non-profit The Nature Institute. “There’s no way you can do it.”

Even Monsanto—which makes 90% of GM seed, according to Greenpeace—concedes that GMO escapes cannot be prevented absolutely. “I don’t think you can absolutely prevent anything in life from escaping or coming someplace else,” says Monsanto spokesperson Brad Mitchell.

But when GE materials sneak out of their crop perimeters, they jeopardize both natural ecosystems and organic farmers’ livelihoods. “We’ve got a situation where our federal agencies haven’t even really dealt with this contamination issue, other than to suggest that it happens and it’s an acceptable practice,” says Center for Food Safety director Joe Mendelson. “That’s just not good enough—that has environmental impacts, it has economic consequences, and it has social consequences on farmers who may lose their farm because they’re contaminated.”

When GMOs escape into the wild there is a risk engineered traits will infiltrate more delicate natural species through cross-breading, or even generate “superweeds” resistant to herbicides. A study done by the Nature Institute, for example, showed that creeping bentgrass—a USDA-approved herbicide resistant grass engineered by Monsanto and Scotts Company for golf courses—had spread its transgene via pollen to native and related plants up to 13 miles beyond the control area perimeter.

But it’s not just other plants that are put in danger—organic farmers also find themselves between a rock and a hard place when GE materials go traveling. The USDA does not test organic crops for GM contamination, and has never revoked a farmers’ organic certification as a result of GM contamination, according to spokesperson Joan Shaffer. But organic grain seed buyers—especially those that wish to export to European markets with stricter GM regulations—do test for GM presence, making organic certification a moot point. “USDA may say that an organic farmer who gets contaminated isn’t going to lose his certification, but it’s disingenuous—the market’s going to reject their product anyway, and they’re not going to get their organic premium,” says Mendelson.

Once an organic farmer has been contaminated, he must either move from the organic to the conventional market, or shoulder the full financial burden of restoring his contaminated crop. In either case, he runs the risk of being sued by Monsanto or another GM company, on grounds of patent infringement. According to non-profit advocacy group Rural Vermont, Monsanto has filed at least 90 lawsuits against farmers, in more than 20 states.

The GM industry is moving ahead at full speed nontheless. Every year, several hundred or even thousand new GM products are approved by the USDA’s department of animal and plant health inspection services (APHIS) for field trial under permit, says Dr. Michael Wach, science and regulatory affairs managing director of the Biotechnology Industry Organization. Seventy-five of those today enjoy “deregulated status,” meaning that they and their progeny are considered safe for the environment and can be grown without APHIS oversight. And not a single GM product proposed by Monsanto has ever been rejected by the USDA, according to Monsanto spokesperson Brad Mitchell.

Center for Food Safety’s Mendelson says the way to regulate the field fairly is to require GM labeling, and to place contamination liability on GM corporations like Monsanto, rather than on organic farmers. “The burden should be on the industry to prove that they can’t contaminate. The industry that puts these products out in the marketplace—with the knowledge that it’s going to get out and have economic consequences on people who don’t want to use it—should pay for the impact of that,” he says.  

For proponents of stricter GMO regulation, recent legal battles over GM alfalfa and sugar beets—the next two big crops expected to take the GM market by storm—provide a glimmer of hope. Monsanto’s Roundup Ready Alfalfa recently became the first GM product ever to have its deregulated status revoked by USDA. Thanks to litigation against USDA by the Center for Food Safety, Monsanto must reassess the environmental impact of the alfalfa.

Although farmers who had already planted the strain of alfalfa have not been made to uproot their crops, further planting is suspended until Monsanto has completed further study on the environmental impact of the plant. “We’re confident that the alfalfa decision set a good legal precedent,” says Mendelson.

Center for Food Safety is now litigating against USDA for having granted deregulated status to GM sugar beets grown in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. The valley is home to native relative species of the sugar beet, such as swiss chard and table beets, which are a source of seed for the rest of the country. If GM sugar beets were to get into these related species, transgenic seeds could quickly spread nationally.

Individual states are also making strides toward what many non-GM farmers hope will be a more level playing field. Vermont’s Farmer Protection Act (Bill S 18), designed to make GM seed companies responsible for potential contaminations, passed in the state’s House and Senate only to be vetoed by Governor Douglass in April of 2006. “This administration is committed to protecting the biotechnology industry, they’ve made that very clear,” says Amy Shollenberger of Rural Vermont. “When Governor Douglass vetoed this bill, he did it at a farm, and he did it in a huge press conference. It was a big deal.”

In her February 2006 testimony on Bill S 18, Annie Claghorn, an organic farmer in Vermont, made a personal case for strict liability. “With genetically modified seed, the manufacturer of this seed always retains ownership, the farmer never does…If these companies are confident enough to promote their technology as safe and effective, there should be no problem holding them accountable for damage from genetic drift,” she said.

California is currently waiting for Governor Schwartzenager to sign off on a bill designed to protect non-GM farmers against contamination and potential lawsuit from GM corporations. As well as providing a “protocol” for GM patent infringement cases, Bill AB 541, would provide that a farmer is not liable based on the presence or possession of a patented genetically engineered plant, so long as he did not knowingly buy or acquire it. 

In the meantime, shoppers concerned about the impacts of GM products on their health and planet have little choice but to give organic farmers and organic grain buyers their good faith, hoping the competitive market provides sufficient protection and transparency.

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I was glad to see a debate on this issue opened here but I was hoping it would be more balanced in its approach. It would also have been useful to have recourse to peer-reviewed science that refers to studies that have been made under natural field conditions. Portraying this issue from one perspective, as is done in this article, can have very negative implications. There are widespread ramifications from our (the developed world’s) rejection of this technology. For example, major wheat producing countries like Australia, the US and Canada have been forced to shift away from growing GM wheat as a result of anti-GM public pressure. Yet GM crops can boost yields, and this move away from GM wheat has thus further reduced the amount of wheat on global markets, raising prices further still and exacerbating the dire situation for the world’s poorest. So this really is a bigger question than it’s often presented as, and I hope it can be addressed as such.

While I don’t believe anyone would claim GM can feed the world, it’s certainly a technology that can help us to feed a growing population through greater use of drought and insect resistant crops, for example. This would also allow us to grow crops more efficiently and thus spare natural habitants from agricultural use. This should be given due consideration, as should the fact that GM crops have been grown and consumed safely for over a decade with no negative impact on health, ecosystems or the environment. Finally, for a science-based assessment of the question of “superweeds” and spread of GM crops, I recommend this Nature/EMBO article:

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