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U.S. Farmers Report Widespread GM Crop Contamination

The past year has seen multiple state-level legislative attempts to label or ban GM products. Credit: Bigstock

The past year has seen multiple state-level legislative attempts to label or ban GM products. Credit: Bigstock

WASHINGTON, Mar 3 2014 (IPS) - A third of U.S. organic farmers have experienced problems in their fields due to the nearby use of genetically modified crops, and over half of those growers have had loads of grain rejected because of unwitting GMO contamination.

Of U.S. farmers that took part in a new survey, the results of which were released on Monday, more than 80 percent reported being concerned over the impact of genetically modified (GM) crops on their farms, with some 60 percent saying they’re “very concerned”.

"USDA has been extremely lax and, in our opinion, that’s due to the excessive influence of the biotech industry in political circles.” -- Organic farmer Oren Holle

The findings come as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has taken the unusual step of extending the public comment period for a controversial study on how GM and non-GM crops can “coexist”. During a major review in 2011-12, the USDA Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture (AC21) concluded that it lacked sufficient data to decide on the extent to which GM contamination was happening in the United States, or to estimate the related costs incurred by organic and other non-GM farmers.

The AC21 recommendations came out in November 2012 and were criticised for being weighted in favour of industry. Critics have subsequently seized on the USDA’s decision to revisit those conclusions, and the new study, produced by an association of organic farmers and Food & Water Watch, a Washington advocacy group, aims to fill the committee’s professed gaps.

“The USDA said they didn’t have this data, but all they had to do was ask,” Oren Holle, a farmer in the midwestern state of Kansas and president of the Organic Farmers’ Agency for Relationship Marketing (OFARM), which assisted in the new study’s production, told IPS.

“Our very strong feeling is that the introduction and propagation of the genetically modified products that are coming out under patent at this point have not had the regulatory oversight that they should have, and need to involve a far broader section of stakeholders. USDA has been extremely lax and, in our opinion, that’s due to the excessive influence of the biotech industry in political circles.”

Misplaced responsibility

While GM crop use has expanded exponentially across the globe over the past two decades, nowhere has this growth been more significant than in the United States. While just one percent of corn and seven percent of soybeans grown in the U.S. came from GM seeds during the mid-1990s, by last year both of those numbers had risen to above 90 percent.

In the new study, nearly half of the farmers polled said they did not believe that GM and non-GM crops could ever “coexist”, while more than two-thirds said that “good stewardship” is insufficient to address contamination.

“The USDA’s focus on coexistence and crop insurance is misplaced,” Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, said Monday, referring to an AC21 recommendation that GM contamination problems be dealt with through a federal insurance scheme set up to lessen the impact of natural disasters.

“The department must recognise the harm that is already being done to organic and non-GMO farmers and put the responsibility squarely where it belongs – with the biotech companies … Now USDA can no longer claim ignorance about this problem.”

Even as contamination reports continue to grow, the U.S. government’s most recent response, drawn from the AC21 recommendations, has been to encourage “good stewardship” practices and communication between neighbouring farmers. Yet non-GM farmers say that, in practice, this has meant substantial outlays of both time and money in order to safeguard their crops – and virtually no corresponding responsibility on the part of farmers using genetically modified crops.

Beyond regular testing and certification requirements, U.S. farmers are required to set aside a substantial buffer zone around their fields to guard against GM contamination. Averaging around five acres, this buffer zone alone costs farmers anywhere from 2,500 to 20,000 dollars a year in lost income, according to the new survey.

Other farmers resort to waiting to plant their crops until after their neighbours’ GM crops have pollinated. Yet this delay, too, imposes a financial burden of several thousand dollars per year.

“I’m getting tired of maintaining these miles of buffers,” one farmer wrote in response to the new survey, complaining about the heavy use of herbicides typically associated with GM crops. “How about the guy that sprays up to the fence be liable for the damage that is done?”

Old playbook

OFARM’s Holle says the findings on just how much farmers are paying to avoid GM contamination took him by surprise. Of this imbalance, he says U.S. regulators are continuing to play out of an “old playbook”.

“There’s been a lot of new technology introduced in agriculture over the past 50 years. But there’s always been a point of law that, whatever happens on my side of the fence, I’m still responsible for how it might affect my neighbour,” Holle notes.

“GMOs take away that neighbour-to-neighbour relationship, however, as the ways in which unintended presence occurs is a completely different set of concerns from other new technologies. For that reason, they need a completely different set of rules.”

While Holle says the USDA has been slow in recognising this new reality, he’s guardedly optimistic that a regulatory rethink is now taking place.

“This additional comment period, I think, points out that they were paying some attention to the initial comments that came in,” he says.

“It does appear that they’re taking a step back. It’s our hope that our efforts have at least gained some traction in recognition that all is not well and that they, perhaps, need to do some re-evaluation.”

Against what he says is an onslaught of lobbying by the biotech industry, Holle says the voice of non-GM farmers has strengthened largely through newfound consumer demand. The past year alone has seen multiple state-level legislative attempts to label or ban GM products, while stores have acted unilaterally.

On Monday, the United States’ two largest grocery chains indicated that they would not sell genetically modified salmon, a product currently being weighed by regulators here. Some 9,000 stores countrywide have reportedly made similar pledges.

“At least 35 other species of genetically engineered fish are currently under development,” Friends of the Earth, an advocacy group, stated Monday. The “decision on this genetically engineered salmon application will set a precedent for other genetically engineered fish and animals … to enter the global food market.”

According to a 2013 poll, 93 percent of U.S. respondents want GE ingredients or products to be labelled, despite strident pushback by industry.

 
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  • DJC11

    Why don’t we regulate GMO plants like we regulate GMO animals?

  • hyperzombie

    Gm crops are regulated, and go through testing before being released.

  • DJC11

    Not to the same degree. We should treat GMO plants with the same caution that we do GMO animals.

  • Rich Smith

    Why isn’t there a petition to sign here?

  • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

    Oh my goodness, another reporter who has not read the organic standards.

    Carey, please read the USDA’s National Organic Program and you will see that there is no such thing as “contamination” of an organic crop by GMOs. It’s the same as in Canada and Australia.

    Organic standards were written in all 3 of these countries BY the organic industry, FOR the organic industry. And there is no mention whatsoever of any harm occurring in an organic crop or field as a result of GMO material contaminating it.
    Yes, it’s true, organic farmers are not allowed to USE GMOs. But there is no harm done to their crops if said crops should happen to come into contact with GMOs, in any way, shape or form.
    Now you know.

  • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

    A petition for what? To get anti-GMO organic activists to read their own standards?

  • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

    I have some really, really bad news for you DJC11. Organic crops have never been tested. They’re not tested for safety, to prove purity, or to ensure they’re more nutritious as claimed.
    It’s the organic industry that has to step up to the plate here and start testing itself instead of pretending GMOs have not been tested thoroughly enough.

  • DJC11

    I didn’t mention organic in my comment. I merely stated that GMO plants should be treated with the same caution and restrictions as GMO animals.

  • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

    So, you think it’s irrelevant that anti-GMO organic activists want MORE testing of GMOs at the same time as there’s been NO testing of organic crops?

  • DJC11

    Nope. Now, getting back to my original comment, do you think GMO plants should be treated with less caution than GMO animals?

  • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

    Okay, I’ll bite. They should be treated with the same precaution as all crops and animals used in farming.
    How’s that?
    Okay, one more thing, organic food ISN’T tested.

  • Pat Ravasio

    I met a couple of Iowa farmers (each with hundreds of acres) in Hawaii last summer and they were sincerely fearful of saying anything bad against Monsanto. They thought I was some kind of corporate spy trying to bait them. When I finally convinced them I was a northern California progressive liberal, the let their hair down (what little they had) and confessed they had no idea what to think of Monsanto since they knew nothing else. The same way fish know nothing about water.

  • LISA

    the Earth has been growing “organic plants and we have been eating them for thousands upon thousands of years!!. GM plants have been around for about 20-30 years. There is a huge correlation between GM food and our declining health, and declining environmental health. There are many independent peer reviewed studies that prove GM food is unsafe, and that glyphosate is unsafe. The big corporate biotech companies spout off about sound science, but they are full of it! ‘Sound science’ is only a term, an ideological term, used to support a particular point of view, policy statement or a technology. ‘Sound science’ is little more than the opinions of so-called “experts” representing corporate interests. Simply put, ‘sound science’ always supports the position of industry over people, corporate profit over food safety, the environment and public health.
    1. Monsanto’s Roundup linked to fatal, chronic kidney disease. Article in Environmental Research and Public Health, February 2014

    What happens when you mix glyphosate, the key active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, with “hard” water? That is, water that contains metals, such as calcium, magnesium, strontium and iron, either found naturally in the soil, or resulting from the use of chemical fertilizers?

    The glyphosate becomes “extremely toxic” to the kidneys.

    That’s the theory put forth by researchers trying to uncover the mystery of thousands of deaths from chronic kidney disease among people in farming areas of Sri Lanka, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

    2. Monsanto’s Roundup persists in soil and water. U.S. Geological Survey report in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, February 2014

    Monsanto has always insisted (despite evidence to the contrary) that its Roundup herbicide is benign, that its toxicity doesn’t persist.

    But that’s only half the story, according to a study published this month in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. Researchers now say that if you study only the key active ingredient, glyphosate, you might, as Monsanto claims, determine that Roundup is benign.

    But there are other ingredients in Roundup, including one called Aminomethylphosphonic acid, or AMPA. The study, called “Pesticides in Mississippi air and rain: A comparison between 1995 and 2007,” found that glyphosate and its still-toxic byproduct, AMPA, were found in over 75 percent of the air and rain samples tested from Mississippi in 2007.

    What does that mean for you? According to one analysis, “if you were breathing in the sampled air you would be inhaling approximately 2.5 nanograms of glyphosate per cubic meter of air. It has been estimated the average adult inhales approximately 388 cubic feet or 11 cubic meters of air per day, which would equal to 27.5 nanograms (billionths of a gram) of glyphosate a day.” Gasp.

    3. GMO crops have led to an increase in use of pesticides and herbicides. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) report, February 2014.

    The USDA, which gauging from its track record has never met a GMO crop it didn’t like, published a report substantiating what responsible, independent scientists have been saying along. Genetic engineering does not result in increased yields (as industry would have us believe)—but it has led to the increased (not decreased, as industry claims) use of pesticides and herbicides.

    To be fair, the report gives overall favorable reviews to GMO crops. Not surprising, given the agency’s cozy relationship with Monsanto. But that makes it all the more telling that the once staunch-defender of GMO crops is now raising questions about industry’s long-term, decidedly unproven and unscientific, claims that biotechnology is the best thing since sliced (GMO wheat) bread.

    Sustainable Pulse does a good job of sifting through the USDA’s report to reveal the agency’s criticisms of GMO crops.

    4. Pesticides are more dangerous than we thought. Article in BioMed Research International, February 2014

    More bad news on pesticides. A study published in BioMed Research International this month says that it’s not just the toxic chemicals we need to worry about in pesticides. It’s the inert ingredients, and how they interact with the active, toxic ingredients.

    Typically, studies conducted to determine the safety of pesticides focus exclusively on the active ingredients. But scientists at the University of Caen tested nine commercial products, including Roundup, and found that eight of them were hundreds of times more toxic than their active ingredient alone.

    Which product won the “Most Toxic” award? Monsanto’s Roundup, which was found to be “by far the most toxic of the herbicides and insecticides tested,” according to the study.

    5. Small-Scale, organic farming needed to feed the world. U.N. Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), Wake Up Before It Is Too Late, December 2013

    In December 2013, the U.N. Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) released the results of a lengthy, in-depth study that blows a huge hole in one of Monsanto’s favorite claims, that we need GMOs to feed the world. The study, entitled Wake Up Before it is Too Late, concluded with this warning: Small-scale organic farming is the only way to feed the world.

    According to an analysis by one of the report’s contributors, the report contains in-depth sections on the shift toward more sustainable, resilient agriculture; livestock production and climate change; the importance of research and extension; the role of land use; and the role of reforming global trade rules.

    More than 60 experts from around the world contributed to the report.

  • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

    When asked for scientific proof that organic food was safe, Lord Walter Northbourne – one of the preeminent forefathers of the modern-day organic movement – said the following words in defense of organic farming:
    If we waited for scientific proof of every impression before deciding to take any consequential action we might avoid a few mistakes, but we should also hardly ever decide to act at all. In practice, decisions about most things that really matter have to be taken on impressions, or on intuition, otherwise they would be far too late…. We have to live our lives in practice, and can very rarely wait for scientific verification of our hypotheses. If we did we should all soon be dead, for complete scientific verification is hardly ever possible. It is a regrettable fact that a demand for scientific proof is a weapon often used to delay the development of an idea.
    (Source: Lord Walter Northbourne, Look to the Land, 1940, p. 31.)

    If such reasoning was good enough to help launch the organic movement, then surely it’s good enough for the science of genetic engineering. Isn’t it?

  • AuntyMM

    What if we just ban the pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers that are associated with the most common GMO crops like corn and soy? That would delete the most unhealthy aspects of GMO crops.

  • hmb

    If organic food isn’t tested, why are “loads of grain rejected because of GMO contamination,” and fields plowed under in Europe because of contamination. Of course organic food is tested for pesticides and GMO contamination, and there are very high standards for receiving organic certification as a farmer, which many small farmers cannot afford. I have never read a claim about higher nutritional content for organic food, most people value it because it isn’t poisoning us, the farm workers, or the environment. There is no pretense that GMO’s haven’t been tested thoroughly enough–they haven’t!

  • scotty perey

    if i could chime in here on a slight tangent, not only are organic crops not tested, they are most certainly NOT pesticide-free as most people mistakenly think. (when surveyed, 95% of respondents answered that “no pesticides” was the reason they paid for organic produce!)

    My question to people who are fervently on the GMO-label bandwagon is if they would equally support labeling for pesticides, and perhaps also even for farm-size and fossil-fuel expenditure for transportation. I know it’s boarding on facetious a little at that point, but if we are talking about hard reality, all three of those latter points are much more relevant to the safety of both ourselves and our environment, in my opinion.

  • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

    Pesticides are known to have a negative affect on the environment and on human health when they are overused. There is, meanwhile, no such evidence that GMOs cause any ill effects. So you raise a pretty good point Scotty!

  • WTFRLY

    These are two separate issues. The biotech giants have been hiding behind claims that contamination is not possible, now it is being revealed that it is happening. That is entirely separate from whether they’d cause harm. It brings up patent issues, trade issues and the de facto problem that now those crops no longer meet the organic definitions. Say what you want about the safety debate, but this end of it is plain as day. These companies don’t have a right to have their GMO creations take over the planet’s food supply.

  • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

    Even if there is contact or comingling between organic and GMO crops, the organic crops still meet the organic definitions.

  • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

    Monsanto has never sued an organic farmer. they have only sued conventional farmers like Percy Schmeiser who were trying to grow Monsanto’s crops without paying for them.

  • Dimitri

    I shall take your word on who Monsanto sues or not, Misha. (it’s not the issue here anyway)

    The question remains as to whether you stand by your comment above that [quote] there is no such thing as “contamination” of an organic crop by GMOs [end quote]

    I just don’t understand your assertion, from a biological point of view. To me it is completely logical that this sort of thing in fact must occur as all outdoor crops are grown in the same airspace and hence GMO material mixing with non-GMOs is in fact inevitable. Just because a crop is grown organically does not protect it from GMO “contamination”.

  • http://geneticallyengineeredfoodnews.com Ella Baker

    GM Crops should be regulated for GMO labelling. :)

  • BETO

    PLENTY OF STUDIES ON ORGANIC NUTRIONAL VALUE OVER CONVENTIONAL , ALL OVER WORLD ,BIN BRAZIL WE HAVE A LOT

  • BETO

    There is cross of the variaties by polinization

  • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

    Until we start testing organic crops in the field, we’ll have no hope of consistently delivering purer, more nutritious crops to market. The organic industry is rife with fraud and gross negligence.

  • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

    There is no such thing as contamination of an organic crop by GMOs, at least not here in the U.S., nor in Canada and Australia.

  • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

    So?

  • Aarielle Aaers

    It is ASTOUNDING that Monsanto CANNOT be sued for contamination. They SHOULD be COMPLETELY liable for all damages. The court system seems TERRIBLY askew.

  • AuntyMM

    is mr. popoff a monsanto plant?

  • mark robbins

    I signed up to comment just to let you know that organic farming uses lots of pesticides and herbicides, in fact, the pesticides and herbicides they use are generally more dangerous than the ones used by conventional farming. But yes, let’s ban all herbicides and pesticides and throw ourselves back into the paleolithic era.

  • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

    No Mark. Not the Paleolithic era. Anti-GMO organic activists only seek to take us back to Medieval times.

  • NoToGMOs

    Don’t bother trying to get a sensible answer from Mr. Popoff. He’s just a failed politician from Canada who also happened to be a USDA organic inspector earlier and thinks he knows everything there is to know about ‘organic standards’. Most of the time, just like in this instance, he just repeats the same thing over and over with no explanation or justification of the stuff he spouts.

  • Dimitri

    Thanks for the hint :-) I’ve begun realizing this might be the case.

  • Dimitri

    Is there such a thing as contamination of NON-organic crops in any of those countries though?

  • Dimitri

    I’m really trying to work this out… is this because the organic definitions do not distinguish between GMO organically grown and non-GMO organically grown crops? In other words, as long as the crops comply with the organic definitions it is of no consequence to their organic status whether they are GMO or non-GMO crops? i.e. if I could grow a Monsanto GM Corn variety to meet organic definitions – would my crop then qualify as an organic crop?

  • AuntyMM

    hey, it’s the monsanto ringer again!

  • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

    Only if authorities in the U.S., Canada and Australia choose to follow the zero-tolerance laws of Europe and Japan, which makes about as much sense as authorities in Europe and Japan following the laws of the U.S., Canada and Australia.
    We write our own laws for a reason.

  • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

    No.

  • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

    I see. So in your mind the scientific field of biotechnology boils down to a single corporation?
    By the way, I don’t work for Monsanto. I’m 100% independent. Sorry to burst your bubble.

  • AuntyMM

    before i devote more of my time to this conversation, could you clarify if you actually want a fact-based discussion or if you just want to sling labels? so far, your remarks suggest the latter, which is why i responded on that frequency.

  • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

    Sling labels? You’re the one who said, “it’s the monsanto ringer again!”

  • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

    I am 100% independent.

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