Farmers fight genetically modified crops
This Roundup Ready Corn, grown on a Centre County farm, can withstand sprayings of the broad-spectrum herbicide glyphosate. Both the corn and the herbicide Roundup are produced by Monsanto. Photo by Danyel Woodring
by Lucy Bryan Green
Amos King’s vision for starting Green Acres organic dairy originated in 1995. Suffering from health problems, he visited a “natural doctor,” who recommended “breaking away from harsh chemicals and processed food.” The change in his diet caused a steady improvement in his health, and he felt inspired to give others access to organic food.
It took a decade for King and his wife to save enough money to buy the 60-acre farm in Aaronsburg that now houses their 35 dairy cows, bee hives and a small community supported agriculture (CSA) operation—all of which are certified organic.
“I just like to farm the way that I feel is right,” King said. “Over the years, my conscience has been telling me that I am responsible for the health of the [people] that consume food off my farm.”
But King’s ability to provide consumers with organic milk, honey and vegetables may be in jeopardy. He said he has seen his neighbor spraying herbicide on corn, soybeans and alfalfa fields—which has led King to believe those crops are the Roundup Ready varieties, genetically modified to withstand application of the herbicide glyphosate.
King said that even though he has installed the 25-foot buffer strips required by Pennsylvania Certified Organic to prevent herbicides from drifting onto the rye, clover, sorghum and alfalfa fields where he grazes his cows, he is still worried about protecting his operations.
“We have honeybees, and if they get on the [genetically engineered] crops, I believe the honey will be contaminated,” he said. “[But] there’s nothing I can do with conventional farmers as neighbors.”
Even more worrisome, according to King, is the possibility of his organic alfalfa fields being pollinated by Roundup Ready Alfalfa, a crop which the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved and deregulated this January.
“If we have GE alfalfa across the fence from us, it’s not going to keep the bees from fertilizing mine [with their pollen],” King said.
King is not alone in his concern about genetically modified organisms’ (GMOs) potential for contaminating his products. This March, the Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT) filed a lawsuit against Monsanto, the producer of Roundup Ready crops, on behalf of 60 family farmers, seed businesses and organic agriculture operations.
According to the lawsuit, filed in a U.S. District Court in New York, “Plaintiffs are increasingly being threatened by transgenic seed contamination, despite using their best efforts to avoid it. This causes Plaintiffs to fear that if they do indeed become contaminated by transgenic seed, which may very well be inevitable given the proliferation of transgenic seed today, they could quite perversely be accused of patent infringement by the company responsible for the transgenic seed that contaminates them.”
The lawsuit turns the tables on the agricultural biotechnology giant, which, since 1997, has filed suit against 145 farmers accused of illegally saving and using its patented seeds.
A chemical romance
Founded in 1901, Monsanto originally produced the artificial sweetener saccharine, which it sold to the Coca-Cola Company along with caffeine and vanillin. By mid century, it had become a leading manufacturer of agricultural chemicals, including DDT, Agent Orange and bovine growth hormone.
It commercialized the broad-spectrum herbicide Roundup in 1976 and two decades later introduced Roundup Ready (RR) Soybeans, whose transgenic (having genes inserted into their DNA from other organisms) properties allow them to tolerate sprayings of that herbicide. Since 1997, Monsanto has released RR varieties of canola, cotton, corn, sugar beets and alfalfa.
On its website, Monsanto claims its Roundup Ready system is “a perfect fit with the vision of sustainable agriculture and environmental protection” because it allows for no-till farming, a technique that conserves water, builds up nutrients in the soil and reduces erosion. It adds that the use of Roundup and RR crops enables “farmers to conserve fuel and decrease the overall amount of agricultural herbicides used.”
Multiple studies, however, show that herbicide use is on the rise. A 2009 report published by The Organic Center showed that the use of weed-killing herbicides in the United States had increased by 383 million pounds from 1996 to 2008.
Still, the touted benefits, along with the Environmental Protection Agency’s assessment that glyphosate poses minimal risk to humans and animals, have made Roundup the number one selling herbicide in the world and Monsanto the top producer of transgenic seeds.
In 2009, farmers planted nearly 70 million acres of RR Corn and over 73 million acres of RR Soybeans in the United Sates, according to a Monsanto investor report. That means more than 80 percent of corn and nearly 95 percent of soybeans were of the RR variety, based on U.S. Department of Agriculture data.
Since the introduction of RR crops, Monsanto has protected its intellectual property by requiring growers to sign a Technology/Stewardship Agreement that binds them not to save seed from any crop containing Monsanto Technologies. This forces farmers using RR crops to purchase new seed every season rather than collecting seed from the previous generation of plants (a practice that is seldom used by large commercial farmers but that is common among small family farmers and enables international farmers to be economically independent).
The company has gained a reputation for taking legal action against farmers thought to be in possession of unlicensed or second-generation Monsanto seed, even farmers who claimed to have grown such seed unintentionally.
Many, including Brian Snyder, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA), object to this practice on moral grounds.
“I take extreme offense to the idea that genetic material is something that can be owned,” Snyder said.
Still, the courts have consistently upheld Monsanto’s patent on the transgenic plants it produces.
In Monsanto Canada Inc. v. Schmeiser, initially tried in June of 2000, Monsanto sued Canadian canola farmer Percy Schmeiser for patent infringement. Schmeiser claimed that he had never planted RR Canola, but that he had discovered that a portion of one of his canola fields displayed resistance to Roundup in 1997. He saved seed from these plants, as he had been doing for decades, and used them in 1998.
After a lengthy appeals process, the Canadian Court ruled in favor of Monsanto in 2004, although it did not require Schmeiser to pay any damages since he had not directly profited from the invention.
Most of the 145 patent infringement lawsuits filed by Monsanto have settled out of court, but of the eleven that have proceeded to court, Monsanto has won all of them. According to the Center for Food Safety, the largest recorded judgment made in favor of Monsanto as of 2007 was $3,052,800.
The case against Monsanto
The plaintiffs in the recently filed lawsuit against Monsanto have grown to include 36 agriculture and food safety organizations, 14 seed businesses and 33 farms that span the United States and Canada, according to the most recent complaint filed by PUBPAT.
One of those plaintiffs, Ron Gargasz of Ron Gargasz Organic Farms is a beef cattle, grain and vegetable farmer in Volant, Pa. He said his neighbor runs a local feed mill and grows several RR varieties and that even though his neighbor does a good job of maintaining buffer strips, he is still worried about contamination from transgenic plants.
A retired high school biology teacher and organic farmer of 31 years, Gargasz said he and a number of other organic farmers began talking to Daniel Ravicher, executive director of PUBPAT, last December.
“We were all concerned that we could be sued, and we thought the least we could do was pre-empt these people,” Gargasz said.
PUBPAT’s complaint explained the incentives organic farmers have for keeping their crops free of transgenic material: Contamination could result in a loss of organic certification and therefore decrease the farmers’ profits, as customers are willing to pay higher prices for organic goods. It could also result in rejected shipments and import bans, domestically and abroad.
“Plaintiffs already have to deal with the constant threat of transgenic seed contamination that could destroy their chosen livelihood,” the complaint stated. “They should not have to live with the threat of being sued for patent infringement should that travesty come to pass.”
PASA’s Brian Snyder said his organization may file a friend of the court brief in support of the plaintiffs.
Snyder said he thinks the lawsuit does more than pre-empt Monsanto from suing: it offers a new perspective on property rights.
“Monsanto has actually infringed on farmers’ property,” he said. “That [transgenic] material is actually doing damage… One would hope that Monsanto would understand that if they’re going to work so hard to protect their property, others will do the same.”
Snyder said he feels hopeful about the outcome of the case, as the courts have a good record of moving to protect organic farms, but he expressed frustration that farmers have had to take legal action to safeguard their livelihoods.
“The federal government abdicated its role in maintaining a safe environment for [transgenic] organisms to be used,” he said. “That means the judiciary needs to be the referee.”
Failure to regulate
Perhaps most telling about the federal government’s stance on genetically modified crops is its six-year history with RR Alfalfa. According to the USDA, farmers plant more than 2.5 million acres of this popular forage crop, used to make hay and to graze livestock, every year.
The USDA first approved RR Alfalfa for commercial sale in June of 2005, but in 2007, a California court issued a permanent injunction against the continued growth of RR Alfalfa after finding that Monsanto failed to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS), a violation of the National Environmental Protection Act.
In December, 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency published its final EIS for RR Alfalfa, which acknowledged the crop’s potential to increase the problem of glyphosate-resistant weeds and “potential negative impacts on the environment preferred by organic farmers.”
After the release of the EIS, the USDA outlined three possible courses of action: “to maintain the RR Alfalfa’s status as a regulated article, to grant non-regulated status to RR alfalfa, or to establish geographic restrictions and isolation distances for the production of RR alfalfa.”
“We are equally committed to finding solutions that support not only the developers and users of biotechnology products, but growers who rely on purity in the non-genetically engineered seed supply,” said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in a press conference.
Don Huber, a plant pathologist and retired Perdue University professor, sent a letter to Vilsack on Jan. 17, urging an “immediate moratorium on the deregulation of RR crops.”
In the letter, he outlined early stage findings of a group of plant and animal scientists of an “electron microscopic pathogen that appears to significantly impact the health of plants, animals, and probably human beings.”
Huber said the pathogen, found in high concentrations on RR Soybeans and Corn, appeared to be linked to the presence of the RR gene or the presence of Roundup. He explained that the disease appeared to be linked to corn wilt and sudden death syndrome in soy, as well as spontaneous abortions in cattle, dairy, swine and horse operations.
“It is urgent to examine whether the side-effects of glyphosate use may have facilitated the growth of this pathogen, or allowed it to cause greater harm to weakened plant and animal hosts,” Huber wrote.
However, on Jan. 27, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) announced that it would grant non-regulated status to RR Alfalfa, meaning it would not be subjected to any directives that would prevent gene flow between transgenic and conventional and organic alfalfa.
“After conducting a thorough and transparent examination of alfalfa… APHIS has determined that Roundup Ready Alfalfa is as safe as traditionally bred alfalfa,” Vilsack said.
Bill Curran, professor of weed science at Penn State University, said he was involved in testing RR Alfalfa prior to its deregulation.
“I was a little surprised when the USDA came out and said they were not going to restrict the planting and production of Roundup Ready Alfalfa,” he said. “I thought there would be some restrictions placed on where it could be planted and how it would be produced.”
Curran explained that unlike soybeans, which are self-pollinating, and corn, which is wind pollinated, alfalfa is pollinated by insects, particularly bees.
“There are a lot of wild bees that could be out there pollinating,” Curran said. “It wouldn’t be uncommon for a wild bee to travel a mile.”
Seed growers, predominantly located in the American west, face the greatest threat from RR Alfalfa, according to Curran.
He said that without a way to prevent cross-pollination, they have no way of knowing whether the products they are distributing across the country (and throughout the world) could possess transgenic material.
“I see Monsanto’s side,” Curran said. “They spend millions of dollars to protect their technology—they were the first ones to do it.”
Still, he said, the government could have done more to prevent unintended gene flow.
“An obvious restriction that might have been in place is some distance that you can grow transgenic alfalfa from conventional or organic alfalfa,” he said.
In order for milk or meat to be considered organic, the animals those products come from must only consume organic feed, like this feed from Organic Unlimited. The threat of contamination by genetically modified plants threatens the livelihoods of organic feed producers as well as organic farmers. Photo by Eric Weidman
The genie’s out of the bottle
While many farmers, like Amos King, think more stringent regulations on genetically modified crops would help protect organic farms, others don’t think regulation is the answer or don’t trust the government to enact appropriate regulations.
“I don’t have much hope in the federal establishments,” Ron Gargasz said. “I think it’s going to have to come from small groups like [us] saying, ‘Enough’s enough.’ ”
Government regulation of organic agriculture has also been a source of frustration for many involved in the industry.
Ken Rice, co-founder of Organic Unlimited, established his organic feed mill in Atglen, Pa. 13 years ago and witnessed the launching of the National Organic Program in 2001.
“[The government] tried to take the gray areas away and make everything black and white, but the gray areas just changed,” Rice said. “They wanted to get the same standards across the country, but … it’s a moving target.”
Rice’s company supplies farmers as far south as North Carolina and as far north as Maine with organic feed for poultry, swine, sheep, goats, beef cattle and dairy cows. According to him, some organic regulations have shifted the focus away from prioritizing the health of the animal; others shift so frequently that “every time you think you’ve got something down pat, it changes.”
Rice said the one thing he would like to see the government do is reverse “legislation that has allowed Monsanto to lock up their seed.”
Since RR genes are patented, and since the Technology/Stewardship Agreement that Monsanto requires all growers to sign strictly prohibits unapproved research, there is no way to conduct truly independent research on Monsanto’s transgenic plants.
Short of testing every grain that comes through his door, which would be impossible, Rice said that Organic Unlimited does everything it can to ensure the purity of its products.
“Obviously we can’t be everywhere, so we need to trust the brokers that we get our products from,” Rice said. “In each case, we make sure that those brokers have their own organic certification.”
Still, Rice expressed concerns about the spread of genetically modified plants, and he said some of his clients do too.
“We actually have people who want feed now that doesn’t have any corn,” he said. “They don’t want the GMOs that can occur in corn. We try to give people what they want and fill that niche.”
Even when organic farmers plant seed in the ground in good faith, Rice said, there is very little they can do to prevent pollen from landing in their fields.
“The genie’s out of the bottle,” Rice said. “There’s no way to get it back in again.”
Nature knows more than our scientists
The concerns over genetically modified plants encompass more than the threat of contamination in organic products.
In the last several years, extensive use of glyphosate, Roundup in particular, has led to the growth of herbicide resistant weeds known as “superweeds.”
Bill Curran explained that this problem started when farmers grew RR Soybeans in the same fields two years in a row.
“What happens is that you have a billion weeds in a field,” Curran said. “You select for mutation. The only ones that survive are the ones that have resistance to the herbicide.”
Ron Gargasz said that in his region of western Pennsylvania, farmers have experienced an invasion of “curly cucumber” weeds that are Roundup resistant.
According to PASA’s Brian Snyder, the only way to kill superweeds is to “go back to some of the older, more dangerous herbicides.”
Curran said it is essential that farmers do not exacerbate the problem of herbicide resistant weeds by applying Roundup more than twice a year, by planting RR crops in succession or by growing many varieties of RR crops at once.
Another problem that genetically modified plants pose is the loss of species due to the dominance of genetically modified organisms.
“I taught an ecological approach to biology in the 1960s,” Gargasz said. “One thing I taught then was how important biodiversity is.”
Gargasz explained that the fewer varieties of crops that are planted every year, the more susceptible those crops become to disease and the more vulnerable Americans become to a food crisis.
That fear may already be on its way to becoming a reality, according to the letter Don Huber to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
Much of the opposition to genetically modified organisms stems from fear of the unknown.
Snyder said that as a society, we need to stop making decisions based on short term gain and to observe a precautionary principle by demonstrating that a technology is safe before using it.
“When you put out technologies that create new organisms, nature does respond—it knows more than our scientists,” he said.
Snyder said history gives us a strong warning: “Most of science these days and technology is focused on trying to fix the problems of previous technology. How many times do we need to go around that circle?”