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Protecting Organic Agriculture from contamination from genetically engineered crops:
Legislative Action in Vermont
Related article December 1999 Updates & New Arguments from other sources (April, 2006)
The Vermont Legislature is debating a measure that would impose strict liability on the manufacturer of any genetically crop or other product that, while in use by a conventional farmer, contaminated through cross-pollination the genetic structure of a neighboring farmer's crops. This hazard is of particular concern to organic farmers, whose crops might be irrecoverably damaged if they were found to incorporate genes from an engineered organism, thus rendering the farmer in violation of organic certification standards. This has already happened; there are instances in which a farmer's entire season crop was unmarketable at the higher organic price because it had been contaminated in this manner. There is even the danger of decertification, effectively putting the organic farmer out of business.
Whether a particular engineered plant or animal produces food products that may be harmful to human health is not the issue in this debate. That is a question to be answered in the case of each product. However, organisms engineered to generate pesticides (BT gene), or to be pesticide tolerant ("Round-up ready") introduce new substances into our diet or the diet of livestock. Our scientific experience with these effects are either very limited (BT has always been applied in a targeted way, has not been incorporated into the plant itself, and is usually washed off the surface before the product is used for food), or nonexistent. In the case of Round-up ready plants, that property is gained, as with all bio-engineering, by the expression of a novel protein (or several).
This is in addition to the likelihood that when the crop is not impaired by the pesticide, the pesticide may be used more freely, adding to whatever hazard the pesticide itself may pose. A more serious consequence is likely to be the appearance, by means of cross pollination or horizontal mutation, of pesticide resistance in the weeds the farmer is trying to eradicate, thus rendering the problem of pest species far harder to deal with.
For another example, the continuous and broad rather than targeted application of a pesticide, as in the case of corn containing bacillus thuringiensis (BT), introduces the further danger of the rapid evolution of BT-resistant strains of pest, thus rendering ineffective what has been for many years a safe and effective method of pest control. As one of the few pesticides available to organic farmers, BT's loss would be harmful to this important, growing, and economically important industry.
BT-modified corn has been criticised as possibly harmful to butterflies, particularly Monarchs. It has been pointed out that Monarch butterflies feed only on milkweed, and so are not not vulnerable to BT from corn pollen. This is partly true -caterpillars do not feed on corn; Monarch caterpillars feed only on milkweed. But pollen which is spread by wind has been show to harm butterfly larvae:
"The highly publicized report of monarch butterflies being poisoned by
pollen from genetically engineered corn is an example of an issue that
needs to be researched further and will require rigorous field
evaluations, the committee said. In that particular report, researchers
showed that pollen from corn which had been genetically engineered to
produce Bacillus thuringiensis
(Bt) toxins -- a type of insecticide -- slowed the growth, and
sometimes killed, monarch caterpillars when enough pollen was placed on
milkweed leaves fed to them in a laboratory. Follow-up studies are
needed in the field where pollen density might be lower and the toxin
might be deactivated by environmental factors."
Deductive or top-down reasoning (i.e., drawing a
conclusion from existing facts without an empirical test of the conclusion) cannot provide a satisfactory margin of safety; only an
extensive database of properly conducted empirical research, over an
adequately long time-base, can provide the necessary argument that a novel
compound is acceptable in our food supply. The biotech industry is not doing
this. But, as I said, this is a separate issue. There probably are
genetically enginered foods that we should eventually make use of, once an
adequate knowledge base is available.
What we are concerned about here is the harm that genetically altered crops, used by some farmers, may do to other farmers whose business model, enabled through certification and licensing, forbids any inclusion of the altered crop in their own marketed product. For reasons briefly discussed above, organic standards, which adopt an absolutely conservative stance, forbid the use of genetically altered plants or livestock. There are substantive reasons for this standard, as noted above; the prohibition is not just an ideological conceit. There have been more than sufficient examples of cross-pollination and genetic migration (I believe this is referred to as "horizontal mutation") that crop contamination is a legitimate fear among organic farmers. And, as discussed above, use of some engineered crops may impair the future effectiveness of well-established organic farming methods by encouraging the evolution of resistance in pest species.
In any other industry, prohibition of practices by some that through accident might cause the business failure of others would be accepted without argument. Specialty and organic farming almost certainly represents the high-value future of Vermont agriculture. Rather than continue to maintain a declining dairy sector at taxpayer expense (although I do support some limited help in this area), Vermont should be doing everything it can to support a sector that is growing on its own, has the potential for bringing in substantial out-of-state revenues, and that may serve the additional purpose of maintaining open land, one of the reasons given for support of dairy farms. Organic farming does not require infusions of taxpayer cash. It may, however, need enough legislative support to protect the organic sector from the very real danger of failure due to contamination, loss of certification, and loss of market acceptance.
And here's the punch line. If the companies producing these engineered plants wanted to take the trouble, they could incorporate into their products a "suicide" or "terminator" gene, so that the mature plant did not produce pollen or seed. The techniques to do this are already understood and well-tested. Indeed, there has been controversy about this, mostly in regard to the saving of seeds by poor third-world farmers. However, in the developed world, among commercial users of engineered crops, saving of seeds is generally prohibited anyway as part of the sales agreement. Moreover, it seems reasonable that if commercial farmers believe that use of engineered crops will improve their income, the need to buy seeds each season will be seen as just part of the cost of using this product.
I suggest the companies with the most to gain from broader use of bio-engineered crops, most notably Monsanto, have had for some time a motive beyond just selling their seeds. They have wanted for nearly fifteen years to participate in the organic market on the cheap. These companies, and especially Monsanto, were vocal participants in the effort to dilute and render largely meaningless the Federal Organic Standards when they were proposed in 1997. During the final comment period in 1998, the USDA received more formal comments than for any other issue in history, and the biotoech industry's efforts were defeated. (Read a detailed account of this process and our formal comments, submitted to the U.S. Dept of Agriculture.)
Organic agriculture, as an industry, is not likely ever to be a profit center for suppliers of technically-oriented industrial agriculture. Since it is the most profitable and most rapidly growing sector of the agricultural economy (even the Frito-Lay division of Pepsico is making successful and legitimate inroads), it represents a growing percentage of that economy that is inaccessible to the biotech industry. If genetically engineered crops were to damage or destroy the organic sector, that would benefit corporations such as Monsanto. If they could not buy their way in on the cheap in the 90's, they are motivated to limit the growth of organic agriculture. If the establishment of liability for contamination threatens to spread, we are likely to hear the rhetoric typical of corporations engaged in societally harmful behavior: they whine that correcting the fault will cost too much and "cost jobs". The truth is always otherwise, when it turns out that the first manufacturers to incorporate newer and more forward-thinking procedures capture more of the market, make more money, and create more jobs.
©2005 Ed Loewenton
April 23, 2005
In brief rebuttal to these arguments, we propose that at present, use of suicide genes be limited to crops that must be planted annually, such as most food crops, and not used in tree-based crops such as fruits. This would cover most of the commercial transgenic crops now in use, and deal with the most contentious current legal issues. We repeat the argument that users of GMO seeds are generally prohibited from saving seeds anyway, and since they use the seeds because they offer an economic advantage, the annual cost of seeds is just another cost of doing business.
4/22/06: National Academies of Science Press Release: U.S. Regulatory System Needs Adjustment
As Volume and Mix of Transgenic Plants Increase in Marketplace. April 5, 2000