Call him the “co-existence kid,” if you will. He won’t mind. In fact, he readily dubs himself “a poster child for co-existence.”
He’s Don Cameron, manager of Terranova Ranch, a nearly 5,500-acre farm near Fresno, CA. As manager, he oversees the production of a wide swath of conventional, organic and biotech crops, among them tomatoes, alfalfa, carrots, corn, vegetable-seeds, cotton, grains, and garlic. He’s been at it for years.
“Before they called it co-existence,” he told Food Safety News with a chuckle. “It’s been fun. But it takes a lot of diligence.”
In agriculture, the term “co-existence” has come to mean the ability to grow genetically modified crops such as Roundup Ready alfalfa, corn, and cotton in ways that prevent the pollen or seeds from drifting to other crops and fields.
In Roundup Ready crops, a gene resistant to Monsanto’s weed killer Roundup is engineered into the crops, which allows farmers to spray Roundup on weeds without harming the crop itself.
For farmers who grow organic or conventional crops, the fear is that the biotech crops will cross pollinate their crops. That’s becoming more of a concern with the steady march of biotech crops across the land. In 2010, the accumulated acreage of biotech crops in the United States and across the globe hit a milestone: 1 billion hectares, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.
A hectare is equivalent to 2.47 acres.
At the same time, consumers are increasingly choosing organically grown foods and products. Although just 3.7 percent of the food sold in the United States is organic, sales of organic food and personal-care products added up to a hefty $26.6 billion in 2009, according to the Organic Trade Association.
Organic and conventional growers say that if cross pollination with a biotech crop should occur, the “contaminated” non-biotech crop could be rejected by buyers, whether they be customers in Japan, the European Union, or the United States, or the companies that contracted with the farmers for the crops.
Bottom line, a lot of consumers don’t want genetically modified organisms, often referred to as GMOs, in their food. And bottom line, a lot of farmers don’t want to lose their livelihoods.
This controversy over genetically engineered crops has recently flared up anew with the USDA’s recent decision that Roundup Ready alfalfa can be planted with no restrictions, as opposed to requiring certain restrictions that would govern where and how it’s grown. One of those restrictions, “geographical isolation,” would have required a certain distance between biotech alfalfa and non-biotech alfalfa crops.
To no one’s surprise, USDA’s recent unrestricted approval of Roundup Ready alfalfa has triggered yet another round of legal battles. This month, a coalition that includes farmers, environmentalists and the Center for Food Safety, filed a lawsuit against the USDA.
Although Roundup Ready alfalfa was first approved in 2005 for commercial planting, a federal court decision in 2007 halted the further sale and planting of biotech alfalfa seeds until the USDA completed a statement outlining its impacts on the environment. It took 4 years to do that.
Cameron, who plans to plant Roundup Ready alfalfa this year, has been there before. In 2006, he began growing it soon after it became available. At the time, the farm had been growing organic alfalfa for about 5 years in response to robust demand from organic dairy farmers.
A perennial crop that typically goes for 3 to 6 years before needing to be replanted, alfalfa — known as the “queen” forage crop because it’s so productive and rich in nutrients — is harvested several times during the growing season. Cameron, for example, typically gets seven cuttings each season.
When it comes to co-existence between the biotech and organic alfalfa crops, “no problem,” Cameron said. “I grew them side by side.”
He said he could do that because he was growing both of them for hay. To achieve the best quality hay possible, alfalfa growers typically harvest the alfalfa before it blooms, thus eliminating the chances of cross pollination or seed development.
“As a hay grower you don’t want the alfalfa to bloom, much less go to seed,” said Cameron. “If that happens, the quality goes down.”
He said his organic customers felt comfortable about what he was doing because they knew the two crops wouldn’t cross pollinate based on the way he was managing the crops.
Like other farmers, Cameron knows that consumer perception is a huge driver when it comes to crops grown for human or animal consumption.
“Emotion tends to win over science,” he said, referring to consumer apprehensions about biotech crops. “Moms especially want zero risk.”
On the food-safety front, some biotech critics warn that genetically modified foods should not be used for food. On the other side of the divide, the FDA says there’s no substantial difference between genetically modified foods and non-biotech foods.
As for feeding biotech crops to livestock, the University of California’s Division of Agriculture and National Resources has released a peer-reviewed report on this topic.
Nothing new about co-existence
Cameron said that “co-existence” has always been part of farming — long before the advent of biotech crops — simply because farmers need to follow agricultural practices that prevent one crop from cross pollinating another or prevent seeds from one crop from getting mixed in with seeds from another crop. Sometimes that involves planting crops a certain distance from one another — creating buffer zones between them.
A good example of that was when Cameron planted white corn on contract. The company he contracted with required him to plant the white corn 1.5 miles from any yellow corn. To make sure he could abide by the contract, he had to know what his neighbors were planting.
“Growers usually cooperate with each other on things like this,” he said.
Always happy to explain what coexistence in agriculture is all about, Cameron donned his “city clothes” for a presentation several years ago before a congressional committee.
He explained to the committee members that coexistence isn’t just about biotech and organic crops but rather about basic agricultural practices that have been around almost since farming began.
“We have been dealing with these issues long before the advent of biotech crops,” he told them. “If farmers were not successful with this, there would be only one color of corn, one variety of melon, and one type of cotton.”
Pointing out that farmers know “the biology” of each crop they grow and where they need to grow it to maintain and preserve its identity and integrity, Cameron shared some information about basic “co-existence” practices that farmers typically follow.
He ticked off a list that included maintaining the necessary separation between crops that can cross pollinate; separating varieties according
to their characteristics
and pollination schedules; cleaning planters, harvesters, bins and trucks to maintain a crop’s purity; communicating with neighbors; and working out any issues that might arise.
“It comes down to agricultural know-how,” Cameron said.
Even so, he also told Food Safety News that sometimes cooperation among growers doesn’t happen.
“When incidents arise (such as the ‘contamination’ of a conventional or organic crop with a biotech crop), regulations can come down,” he said.
So, too, can lawsuits, the latest example being a multi-million judgment recently handed down by a jury in Arkansas. In that case, a unit of Germany’s Bayer AG was ordered to pay $136.8 million to Riceland Foods, a farmers’ cooperative, for contaminating U.S. long grain rice stocks with a genetically modified strain. Rice growers said the contamination put a big dent in their exports about 4 years ago.
Co-existence not foolproof
For many growers, the recent rice case, and others like it, shows that co-existence, while a good concept, isn’t always foolproof, especially if farming practices that would prevent cross pollination aren’t followed.
Ed Maltby, executive director of the Northeast Alliance of Dairy Producers, one of the plaintiffs in the recently launched lawsuit against the USDA over its unrestricted approval of Roundup Ready Alfalfa, said there’s more at stake in this than the future of the organic dairy industry.
“There’s a great resurgence in ‘buying local,’ ” he told Food Safety News. “This is helping family farms. Many of their customers don’t want any cross pollination with genetically modified crops.”
He also pointed out that even though most hay farmers intend to cut their alfalfa before it blooms, there are instances when a farmer can’t get to the crop on time. There are other instances where, for one reason or another, a stand of alfalfa isn’t being harvested anymore.
He said that opens up the possibility that the pollen will drift to other farms through the air or through bees — or that the seeds can be transported to neighboring farms or hedgerows, for example.
Then, too, there’s the alfalfa that planted as part of a pasture mix. If for some reason, the cows don’t get to all of it — or if the field is no longer pastured — the possibility of cross pollination exists. Natural events such as flooding could also put a pasture out of commission. But alfalfa, with its deep roots, would usually survive.
“Genetically engineered alfalfa should not be able to used for pasture-based mixes because it can go to seed,” Maltby said.
For organic dairy farmers, these sort of situations raise fears about the widespread contamination of non-biotech crops. Some even predict that unrestricted use of biotech alfalfa will contaminate all alfalfa seeds within a few years.
The USDA is not blind to these concerns. According to a USDA question-and-answer sheet about co-existence between biotech and organic crops, the USDA says it wants to help maintain the purity of non-biotech alfalfa seed and develop new tools to lessen the risk of gene flow in alfalfa. It even talks about providing voluntary third-party audits and verification of industry-led stewardship initiatives.
Maltby laments that USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack’s original suggestion to place restrictions such as “geographic isolation” on Roundup Ready alfalfa was overruled by the agency’s subsequent unrestricted approval of the crop.
Pointing out that organic farmers accept an array of responsibilities and costs to qualify to use the USDA organic seal on their products, Maltby said that growers of biotech crops should be required to take the same steps.
“We want the biotech industry to look at the things we do,” he said citing annual inspections, record keeping, paying for certification costs, and using USDA’s organic seal to verify that things are being done according to the National Organic Program’s standards.
In the case of animal products such as milk and meat, the agency’s organic seal assures customers that the animals haven’t been treated with antibiotics or growth hormones, that they’ve had the opportunity to be out on pasture, that their feed is organic and contains no GMOs.
“What the organic industry is already doing is a great example of how you could move forward with biotech crops,” Maltby said. “It is possible to do this and inform customers about it.”
Last week, USDA Secretary Vilsack told a Washington Post reporter that co-existence is not dead and that he intends to push on with it. As part of that, he has re-established a stakeholders’ committee that will tackle a broad range of issues associated with the controversy over this topic.
In the latest twist in this ongoing controversy, a coalition that includes 60 family farmers, seed businesses, and organic agricultural organizations — the Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT) — filed suit on March 30 against Monsanto Company. The legal action challenges the company’s patents on genetically modified seed.
According to a press release from organic advocate The Cornucopia Institute, the organic plaintiffs “were forced to sue preemptively to protect themselves from being accused of patent infringement should their crops ever become contaminated by Monsanto’s genetically modified seed.
“This case asks whether Monsanto has the right to sue organic farmers for patent infringement if Monsanto’s transgenic seed or pollen should land on their property,” said Dan Ravicher, PUBPAT’s Executive Director, in Cornucopia’s press release. “It seems quite perverse that an organic farmer (whose crop has been contaminated) by transgenic seed could be accused of patent infringement, but Monsanto has made such accusations before and is notorious for having sued hundreds of farmers for patent infringement, so we had to act to protect the interests of our clients.”
Ravicher said that while some might say transgenic seed can coexist with organic seed, “history tells us that’s not possible, and it’s actually in Monsanto’s financial interest to eliminate organic seed so that they can have a total monopoly over our food supply.”
Ed Maltby, executive director of plaintiff Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, summed up the frustration felt by many farmers.
“It’s outrageous that we find ourselves in a situation where the financial burden of GE contamination will fall on family farmers who have not asked for or contributed to the growth of GE crops,” he said in Cornucopia’s press release.
He warned that family farmers will face contamination of their crops by geneticially engineered seed, which will threaten their ability to sell crops as organically certified or into the rapidly growing ‘Buy Local’ market where consumers have overwhelmingly declared they do not want any genetically engineered crops. Then to make matters worse, family farmers may be faced by a lawsuit by Monsanto for patent infringement.
“We take this action to protect family farms who once again have to bear the consequences of irresponsible actions by M
onsanto,” he said.
A sense of panic
This latest controversy over Roundup Ready alfalfa hearkens back to similar challenges in other industries that can come with “contamination” of a crop whether through cross pollination with a biotech crop, diseases, or less-than-perfect handling practices.
When Skagit County, WA, vegetable-seed grower Kirby Johnson, president of the Puget Sound Seed Growers, heard that some farmers in the county south of him were going to start growing genetically modified canola and crush the seeds to make biofuel, he and his fellow seed growers experienced what he described as “a sense of panic.”
That’s because canola, whether it’s genetically modified or conventional, can cross with cabbage seeds, which the seed growers in Skagit County grow for markets all over the world.
Washington State University Extension Educator Don McMoran said the European Union won’t buy vegetable seeds with traces of GMOs, and Japan is also leery of them.
“We knew there would be hell to pay if the European Union quit buying our seed,” said Johnson. “Just the words ‘genetically engineered’ is death to EU sales. That’s an economic reality.”
McMoran said a new test can detect if there’s just one genetically engineered seed in a batch of 100,000 seeds. In that case, a EU buyer will reject not only the entire bag but the entire lot as well.
The solution to the dilemma came in the form of co-existence. With an eye on helping the farmers who grow canola for biofuels and the farmers who grow related vegetable-seed crops succeed, state legislators gave the state’s Agriculture Department the nod to come up with rules that would limit canola production to designated districts in those counties where a vegetable seed industry was established. The rules include specific requirements for the growing, harvesting and transporting of the canola crop in those areas.
“We were willing to let Eastern Snohomish County have the canola, but we didn’t want it grown near our seed crops,” said Johnson, speaking specifically of the canola grown in the county south of him.
Keeping spuds ‘pure’
Most people don’t realize what it takes to produce disease-free seed potatoes.
Seed potatoes are the potatoes you plant when you put in a crop of potatoes, whether it be on a large farm or a small backyard garden.
Because potatoes are prone to an array of insect pests and serious bacterial, fungal, and viral plant diseases, the growing of seed potatoes involves propagating new disease-free stock for multiplication each year. It can take 4 years before there’s enough volume for planting on a commercial scale.
In Whatcom County in northwest Washington, seed potato growers enjoy an important degree of isolation from commercial potato crops, which gives them added assurances that they can produce vigorous and disease-free seed potatoes for commercial growers.
But when they learned that an organic grower was planning to plant potatoes near some of their seed-potato fields, they realized they had to do something to protect their crops from any diseases that might be transferred from the organic potatoes to the seed potatoes.
Again, the solution was a form of co-existence. In 1998, the state’s Agriculture Department adopted new rules prior to the 1998 growing season that formed a seed-potato isolation district in northwest Washington. Regulations for potato production within the isolation district require all potato plantings in excess of one acre to be enrolled in the seed-potato certification program.
Seed-potato grower Greg Ebe of Ebe Farms said the growers were worried because aphids are the main vector for potato viruses, which adversely affect plant health and reduce yield and vigor.
“If a grower isn’t controlling the aphids, he could readily transfer the viruses to our potatoes,” he said, citing one of the fears of the growers.
He estimated the annual farmgate value of the county’s seed potatoes — the money the growers receive for their seed potatoes — at about $20 million.
“There’s a lot at stake,” he said. “A lot of commercial growers depend on us for disease-free seed potatoes.” Ebe also said the seed-potato growers in his district are always working on new varieties.
“The focus now is more on nutrition and phytonutrients and flavor than on appearance,” he said. “Whatcom County is on the forefront of this. If our industry is threatened, it could slow the development of healthier varieties.”
Marlys Bedlington, owner and founder of Pure Potatoes, has been producing disease-free seed-potato stock in northwest Washington state since 1987.
The process starts under a microscope in a sterile lab and involves tissue culturing to get the cleanest, disease-free seed possible for the company’s customers.
“We worked hard to get the isolation district established,” she said. “Producing disease-free potatoes are what we’re all about. We didn’t want to see that jeopardized.”
Staff of life
Often referred to as the “staff of life,” wheat is another case in point. Although many conventional wheat growers in the U.S. had originally feared the introduction of biotech wheat based on warnings from some of their overseas customers that they would reject any shipments that contained traces of genetically modified wheat, that line of thinking has shifted.
According to the National Association of Wheat Growers, more than three-quarters of wheat growers responding to a 2009 NAWG survey approved a petition supporting the commercialization of biotechnology in wheat.
Pure and simple: most wheat growers now realize that biotech wheat is coming, even though it might not happen for 8 years or so — but perhaps sooner.
Wheat breeder Stephen Jones, professor and scientist at Washington State University’s Crop and Sciences Department, has a special interest in breeding wheat for sustainable, perennial and organic systems.
He pointed out that while pollen drift is not so much of an issue with wheat, the real challenge is keeping the different wheat varieties separated.
Referring to white and red wheat as an example, Jones said the two are always getting mixed together by accident. That means that some customers’ demands for low allowances, or even zero allowance, of GMOs “may certainly be exceeded through everyday errors in mixing and storage,” Jones said.
That is, unless large regions can be designated as GMO-free.
“I think that would be a great idea,” he said.