One lesser-known aspect of the growing movement for food integrity is the ongoing, time-sensitive threat posed to organic and natural farmers — and the plant world in general — by cross-contamination from genetically modified crops.
The mainstream media rarely if ever mentions it, but the fact remains that genetically modified organisms are capable of altering the very nature of nature itself, and our food, over time.
Co-existence between organic and GM crops is virtually impossible unless they’re widely separated, but so far organic farmers have been offered little if any protection from contamination risks by U.S. government organizations, severely limiting their freedom of choice.
Cross-contamination of natural plants by genetically modified crops has been found as many as 13 miles away from the source (and 60 miles through multiple pollinations in Mexico) and while the “safe distance” varies by crop, one thing’s for sure: organic and non-GM farmers must take the cross-contamination threat very seriously.
Those who don’t risk having their crops rejected by both domestic and overseas markets (and their livelihoods taken away from them).
They could also find themselves on the wrong end of a lawsuit for “patent infringement” over the “theft of intellectual property” that may be alleged against farmers who unintentionally end up with GMO (genetically modified organism) “technology” on their own farms, GM material that they never wanted in the first place.
Every farm is different, but most organic and non-GM farmers have no choice but to foot the bill for several different expensive precautionary measures that must be taken in order to maintain and verify the purity and non-GM status of their crops and seeds.
To force these restrictions upon organic and non-GM farmers flies in the face of hundreds of years of common English law (particularly the well known phrase “A Man’s Home is his Castle”), according to Jim Gerritsen, the president of the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, who used the following analogy.
“If I decided to spray my house purple and I sprayed on a day that was windy, and my purple paint drifted onto your house and contaminated your siding and shingles, there isn’t a court in the nation that wouldn’t in two minutes find me guilty of irresponsibly damaging your property,” he said.
“But when it comes to agriculture (since the advent of GMOs), all of a sudden the tables are turned.”
The following is a list of the precautions these farmers often make in their best effort to avoid being contaminated by their neighbors growing GMOs, as found in OSGATA’s ‘Protecting Seed Integrity’ handbook, with comments and insight from my interview with Gerritsen included.
1. Identify At-Risk Crops and Potential Points of Contamination-
“The first thing you do is identify what crops your neighbors are growing in the area that are GMO,” Gerritsen said.
But as Gerritsen noted, it can still be very hard for non-GMO farmers to tell what types of crops really are in the area due to the unregulated and growing number of GMO test plots.
“There are thousands of test plots all of the country and the USDA system seems to be anarchy, there’s little oversight, no public identification of where the crops are,” he said.
He mentioned the infamous GMO wheat cross contamination episode in Oregon as one example of how GMOs in the environment can cause havoc (and badly damage or ruin an organic or non-GMO farmer’s bottom line, since their markets, especially internationally, depend on them being GMO free).
2. Creating a Buffer on Your Side of the Fence-
Organic farmers must keep a safe distance from neighboring GMO farms, and because of this, the best and most trustworthy growers often end up moving or creating their farms on sites bordered by geographical features like large forests, mountain ranges and other barriers to provide cover from cross contamination by wind-blown GM material.
The USDA mandates a 25-foot buffer zone between organic farms and possible sources of cross contamination but Gerritsen says the actual distance needed is far higher.
Even farms that positioned miles away can be at risk, as mentioned earlier.
3. Test Any At-Risk Seed Prior to Planting-
“This is another good rule because otherwise should you end up with a contaminated crop, you won’t know when the contamination occurred,” Gerritsen said. “Contamination could occur in the current season or through the seed that you (originally) planted.”
“Economically this is the industry-wide standard: the seed grower does the original testing (and shares the cost with seed buyers)…”
“This should be paid by the Biotech industry, we should not have to be responsible for testing seedlots because we’ve been responsible citizens, so why does the cost fall upon the innocent farmers and seed companies?”
4. Delayed Plantings-
“Most of these, we’re not sure that they’re really all that effective. For example the word last year was that there was widespread contamination,” Gerritsen said. “Staggering your planting only works when a neighbor plants GMOs first and you hold back and take a significant yield loss by planting later.
“But last year there was a wet spring and the pollination windows overlapped, so there was a significant increase (of cross-contamination by GMOs of natural crops).”
5. Implement an Individualized Testing Plan Based on Scale and Pre-Determined Contamination Thresholds-
Putting such a plan into practice can be quite costly for natural and organic farmers, as Gerritsen noted.
“Imagine you’re a tiny grower, it takes approximately seven pounds to a 10,000 kernel PCR (DNA) test on your crops.
“If you’re growing scores of acres, hundreds of acres of crops, and many varieties in any given year, it becomes problematic as to what test you do…do you have enough seed?
“So there’s an impact on the farmer who must grow more seed than a market needs, just for testing, as any certified organic seed that enters the marketplace needs to be tested or it should not be sold as organic seed.”
Gerritsen said there’s a tremendous cost on farmers that see their original seed stocks contaminated as they have to start all over again after years of saving them and protecting their organic purity.
The costs of these tests alone for natural and organic farmers is also a major financial strain, and they must cover the costs, while GMO companies and farmers get off scot-free.
“Contamination by the Biotech industry, it cannot be overstated as to how damaging it is,” Gerritsen said.
6. Use Scale-Appropriate Sampling Methods to Collect a Representative Sample of the Largest Number of Seeds Acceptable to Your Operation-
This is especially hard on smaller growers, Gerritsen said, who have a wide variety of seeds.
7. Work with a Trusted Lab to Determine Which PCR Test is Best for Your Situation.-
This is especially tricky in the arena of GMO cross contamination because many of the labs nationwide are licensed by (Biotech industry power players), Gerritsen said.
“You need to have faith in the lab you’re dealing with (or that lab could “rat out” a farmer and put them in jeopardy of being sued over GMO contamination they never wanted in the first place).
“You need to know that the lab has integrity, and loyalty to you as the client and not some large multi-national bully.”
Gerritsen said that there are many labs doing testing for cross contamination but only a handful that he would trust.
“There are extremely high stakes, you have to trust who you’re dealing with,” he said.
8. Understand the Potential for Gene Flow and Avoid Renting Pollinators That Have Been Used in Proximity to GM Fields-
Farmers must determine where neighboring or feral beehives that may have pollinated GMO crops exist, and also advise their neighbors of this risk.
Not all farmers have to worry about this, depending on what types of crops they grow, but it can be another source of stress and a potentially serious problem for farmers like non-GMO corn growers who need to be cognizant of this issue.
9. As Appropriate, Implement Isolation Distances When Planting. Plan Isolations for Time as Well as Space if Possible-
As a rule of thumb, Dr. John Navazio, author of the invaluable organic farming and seed producers’ book ‘The Organic Seed Grower: A Farmer’s Guide to Vegetable Seed Production’advises doubling or even tripling or quadrupling the normal isolation distance from GMO crops.
“For example for corn the recommendation might be 660 feet, so you might want to triple or quadruple that to about half a mile,” Gerritsen said.
“But in some areas such as the Willamette Valley in Oregon, some of the European and Asian companies have dropped their contracting, they’re so paranoid of getting contamination from GM crops nearby they’re not willing to risk it.”
10. Control Any Volunteers, Feral Populations, and/or Wild Relative (Plants) in Proximity to Fields-
Sometimes, GMO crops escape farming plots and end up cross contaminating plants in the wild, which is where an even more serious risk to natural crops comes into play.
“For example the feral GE canola is absolutely out-of-control in North Dakota and Saskatchewan,” Gerritsen said, noting it contaminates wild mustard, wild kale and similar non-GMO weeds and crops in the same family.
“These plants are very promiscuous, they go on and reproduce even more, contaminating wild weeds…It’s like a science fiction movie and the federal government is not doing their job.”
He said that one of the Biotech industry’s main talking points is that the organic community has not proved any economic harm from cross contamination but Gerritsen disagrees.
“The fact is it collapsed the organic canola industry, if the collapse of an industry is not economic harm then I don’t know what economic harm could be,” he said.
“The AC21 (Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture created by the USDA) committee studied the issue of GM contamination and the falsity of co-existence, and half of the committee was stacked with Biotech scientists.”
He added that the committee and other decision makers ignore many incidents, including ones where organic soybean farmers are tested “hot” for GMO material and have to pay to have entire shiploads sent back to them.
11. Avoid Mixing During Harvest, Cleaning, Storage, Transport, and Sales. Clean All Equipment and Facilities Prior to Use-
Gerritsen simply calls this a “good management practice,” but notes that it is especially challenging for farmers that grow a wide variety of different types of crops.
He laments the approval of common crops like yellow corn that are virtually impossible for natural farmers to detect (as to whether they contain GMO material) without expensive testing.
According to Gerritsen the Biotech industry is quick to point out that organic farmers may be able to keep their certification even after cross contamination from GMOs occurs.
But this is merely an industry talking point, he says, as the main economic damage comes when the organic market is not willing to accept such crops that have been grown due to contamination.
“If your seed becomes contaminated, all the certifications in the world won’t sell it,” he said, especially in the highly important overseas markets that value genetically pure non-GMO crops.
“Since we can’t see it, we always have to be on guard.”
How Some Farmers Are Forced to Abandon Planting
In addition to the high monetary costs of the above precautions, some organic farmers are being forced to simply give up planting the types of crops they would like to grow.
“Some members of OSGATA have had to abandon growing crops like organic corn, soybean and canola due to the certainty of them being contaminated by neighbors, so, how do you evaluate that situation monetarily?
“It’s hard to try to assess a monetary value (in this case),” Gerritsen said.
“Canola for example was not only a wonderful crop for rotations before the Biotech industry collapsed it, but it was also valuable to sell it.
“These crops are valuable because they help to fumigate the soil, lessening the pathogenic fungi that can harm other crops; it also can kill up 15% of the weed seed within a rotation for potatoes.
“Having to eliminate something like that (because of GMO cross contamination) which improves the farm ecosystem, it’s hard to place an economic value on that.”
Final Thoughts on the Challenges and Damage Caused by GMO Cross Contamination
“As one fellow farmer said, tongue in cheek: ‘You could put a dome over your farm to prevent it from being contaminated,'” Gerritsen said.
“That’s sort of a dark comedy way of looking at it, but it’s almost what we have to do in an age where Biotech is not willing to restrain itself, and in collusion with the government does not feel that organic or non-GMO farmers should have property rights to restrict contamination from coming onto their farms.”
In a ruling upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in OSGATA et al v. Monsanto ruled recently that farmers can have up to a “trace amount” of GMO material in their own crops without being sued, but that amount is just 1 percent, a number Gerritsen says is quite easy to go over, especially since it’s so difficult to be certain even via expensive testing if a whole lot of seeds and/or crops is clean.
The Final (Estimated Costs) of Preventing GMO Contamination by Organic and Natural Farmers-
“Right now, organic farmers are paying the entire cost, and their crops are being contaminated; it’s not fair but we’re not giving up the fight to achieve justice.”
“It varies by geographic location, types of crops at risk, level of isolation, etc…But I would think it would be in the tens of thousands for many seed growers, I would think…”
The number is based on what Gerritsen observes from members of OSGATA, who run small to moderate sized farms.
He said that number was just an estimate since the costs vary so wildly, but it’s definitely in the “many thousands of dollars per grower per year,” he said, which is a “significant portion of the farmers’ overall income.”
As for the solutions to the problem, he stressed the need for a fair policy regarding GMO cross contamination and noted the ongoing threat posed by new GMO crops, which number in the dozens, and represent more staple food crops and more potentially nightmarish incidents of cross contamination in the future.
But Gerritsen also spoke of the great opportunity new organic farmers coming aboard have due to exploding consumer demand.
“This is a great time to get started in organic seed farming, the demand is far in excess of the supply across the entire spectrum and we need experienced growers who can raise high quality organic seed crops, and be rewarded financially.”
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