Monday, July 17, 2006

GMOs: Risks and Liabilities for Farmers

Article No. 2

Last week, the Napa Sentinel reported on two bills that Congressman Kucinich recently reintroduced into the House of Representatives—one to mandate the labeling of genetically modified (GM) foods and the other to require the Food and Drug Administration to perform safety tests on GM foods before they are released onto the market. Two other bills he introduced to regulate GMOs are aimed at protecting farmers from the risks and liabilities of this experimental and controversial technology.

Last year, when the ballot initiative was put forth to place a ten-year moratorium on the planting of genetically modified crops in Sonoma County, those in opposition spent a half a million dollars to make the initiative seem “anti-farmer.” The reality is that farmers were split on the issue with farmers committed to sustainable and organic agricultural practices and those concerned about the integrity of Sonoma’s agriculture supporting the temporary ban and conventional farmers who believed the technology beneficial opposed. What did not come out in the fierce campaign battle in which proponents and opponents were limited to ten-second sound bites and a few words on a billboard, was that many farmers have been hurt by this technology and more could be hurt in the future, so much so that Kucinich wrote two bills specifically to protect farmers’ rights in relation to GMOs.

According to Jeffrey M. Smith, author of Seeds of Deception, the biotech industry spends about $50 million each year marketing this technology to the community at large but especially to farmers and producers. This aggressive marketing campaign, combined with a media that has been silenced due to industry threats of libel lawsuits and loss of advertising, has resulted in a public that is aware of the potential benefits but almost completely unaware of the possible risks (Smith, pgs. 183-229). One of the provisions in Kucinich’s “Genetically Engineered Crop and Animal Farmer Protection Act” (H.R. 5266) requires companies selling GMOs to disclose all known risks.

Perhaps the largest risk to farmers is a decrease in profits. Studies have shown that U.S. farmers growing GM crops have lost billions of dollars due to lost exports, lower crop prices, and product recalls. Government subsidies have increased about $3 to 5 billion annually to keep these farmers afloat (Smith, pg. 154). Farmers have lost so much money as a result of GM crops that 200 organizations representing farmers and the organic movement successfully banded together to prevent the introduction of a new GM crop onto the market—wheat ( Why is the U.S. government continuing to subsidize a technology that is unprofitable? Consumer demand for organics grew 30% last year and has been one of the fastest growing food sectors ( Why doesn’t the U.S. government shift its focus away from GM crops, which consumers clearly don’t want, and instead subsidize farmers wanting to convert over to organic and sustainable practices, which would be more profitable, better for the environment, and doesn’t carry the health risks of GMOs?

Another potential risk for farmers is that the technology can fail. For example, most of the GM crops already on the market have been genetically modified by Monsanto Corporation to resist Monsanto’s herbicide, Roundup. By blasting a gene from a bacterium that is resistant to Roundup into the cells of soybeans, corn, canola, and cotton, farmers can indiscriminately spray these crops with Roundup, killing weeds but not their crop. However, there have been cases of the technology failing. For instance, this year, more than ninety Texas cotton farmers sued Monsanto, stating that “Monsanto's ‘Roundup Ready’ cotton did not tolerate applications of Monsanto's Roundup weed killer as it has been genetically altered to do. The farmers claim there is evidence that the promoter gene inserted into the cotton seeds in the genetic modification process does not work as designed in extreme high heat and drought conditions, allowing herbicide to eat into plant tissue, leading to boll deformity, shedding, and reduced yields. The plaintiffs claim Monsanto knew this but did not disclose it, so the farmers would continue to buy and use Monsanto's Roundup herbicide” (Gillam, Reuters). Kucinich’s bill would not only require the developer, in this case, Monsanto, to disclose such information, it would confirm that farmers have the right to seek compensation for their loss.

Another provision in this same bill would give farmers the right to reuse seeds and would prevent biotech corporations from developing sterile seeds. Farmers have been saving and reusing seed from year to year since the beginning of agriculture. This practice is especially important in poor, developing countries that cannot afford to buy new seed each year. However, biotech corporations patent their genetically modified seeds and can dictate that the seed only be used once. Monsanto has even developed the technology to produce sterile seeds, which guarantees that the farmer can only use the seed one time and must buy new seed annually. Monsanto has patented these “terminator” or “suicide” seeds but has not been able to release them onto the market, because the United Nations has intervened and prevented them from doing so ( Biotech corporations have been buying up natural seed companies and retiring them (Smith, pg. 2). Meanwhile, they are developing more and more varieties of GM seeds. In 1999, when Monsanto’s executives were asked what their view of the “ideal future” would be, they replied, “A world with 100% of all commercial seeds genetically modified and patented” (Smith, pg. 1). For many, the idea of a few biotech corporations gaining ownership and control over our food supply is a frightening thought.

Finally, the “Genetically Engineered Organism Liability Act” (H.R. 5271) places all liability for any negative impacts caused by GMOs onto the developer, instead of the farmer or producer. In his speech before the House of Representatives, Kucinich stated, “Biotech companies are selling a technology that is being commercialized far in advance of the new and unknown science of genetic engineering. Farmers may suffer from crop failures, neighboring farmers may suffer from cross pollination [of GM pollen], increased insect resistance, and unwanted 'volunteer' genetically engineered plants, and consumers may suffer from health and environmental impacts. Therefore, biotech companies should be found liable for the failures of genetically engineered crops. This bill ensures that the creator of the technology assumes all liability.”

Biotech corporations being held liable for the contamination of non-GM crops with GM pollen is the opposite of what has taken place thus far. Monsanto has sued and taken to court hundreds of small farmers whose non-GM crops have been contaminated by GM pollen, stating they have violated its patent rights. For example, Monsanto sued Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian farmer whose conventional canola was contaminated by pollen from nearby Roundup Ready canola. According to Schmeiser, "I never had anything to do with Monsanto, outside of buying chemicals. I never signed a contract. If I would go to St. Louis (Monsanto Headquarters) and contaminate their plots, destroy what they have worked on for forty years, I think I would be put in jail and the key thrown away" ( The Canadian Supreme Court decided that it did not matter how the GM canola got there, and Percy Schmeiser lost the case.

So, what would these two bills mean to our local area? During the debate on the ballot initiative in Sonoma, it came out that a few farmers in Sonoma are growing Roundup Ready corn used mainly for animal feed. Currently, those farmers can be held liable for any negative impacts their corn causes to people’s health, the environment, or neighboring farmers, if their conventional or organic corn were to become contaminated through cross-pollination, which has occurred as far away as fifty miles. Here in Napa, Grandpa Jack’s Farm grows certified organic produce, including organic corn. They invest a lot of time and money to get their organic certification, and their corn commands a higher price as a result. What financial hardship would that create for them, if their corn was to become contaminated with GM pollen, and they could no longer sell it as “organic?” How would they know which farmers’ GM corn contaminated their crop? Who would they sue for compensation? Would Monsanto sue them for violating its patent rights? Kucinich’s bill would make it clear that Monsanto would be liable for their financial loss; however, it still doesn’t address the problem of contamination itself. How can we prevent birds, bees, and wind from cross-pollinating non-GM crops with GM pollen? Over time, will there even be a non-GM or organic option, if this trend continues? Such problems have yet to be addressed, which is why cities, counties, states, and countries around the world have called for temporary bans on the planting of GM crops, until such issues are resolved, if they can even be resolved.

No comments: