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Organic farmers prepare to ward off genetic trespassers

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Stephanie Paige Ogburn | Mar 30, 2011 11:40 AM

In early February, I wrote about the U.S. Department of Agriculture's decision to fully deregulate the planting of genetically-modified alfalfa, and partially deregulate the planting of genetically-modified beets. These decisions allowed modified alfalfa to be planted anywhere, without restriction, and modified sugar beets to be planted in many locations, with some restrictions -- despite a September 2009 ban from a federal judge on all modified beet planting.  The beet planting ban was the result of a lawsuit filed by organic beet and chard seed farmers worried about contamination from neighboring modified sugar beet fields, and the judge-ordered environmental impact statement has not yet been completed.

Organic seedsOne result of the USDA’s decision is that organic farmers have been placed in a defensive mode, where they are responsible for preventing seed pollution from modified crops. Organic seed farmers run the risk of having modified crops (some of whose pollen can travel many miles) cross-pollinate their seed crops, resulting in their otherwise organic seeds becoming contaminated with modified genes. Pollen from crops like sugar beets can travel for several miles, and contaminate any related varieties, such as Swiss chard or table beets. If their crops become cross-pollinated by these genetic trespassers, the farmers lose the ability to sell the seeds as organic, and also lose the price premium that many of their business models rely on. The business risk has become large enough that even mainstream agriculture publications are calling for a discussion between the Agriculture Department, conventional, and organic farmers that addresses the potential losses organic producers could face.

Some proactive organic seed growers recently received online training in how to prevent modified genes from crossing into their seed crops. A recent training was hosted by the Web-based farm education site Extension.org and presented by agronomist Jim Riddle, who served on the USDA Organic Standards Board. The session, titled "GMO contamination and organic farming: What is an organic farmer to do?" ran through the various ways farmers may experience contamination, and outlined a variety of ways to avoid it.

Riddle began his seminar by listing the major genetically modified crops grown in the United States: corn, cotton, canola, sugar beets, Hawaiian papaya, a few varieties of summer squash, and alfalfa.  He ran down a task list for farmers growing seeds that can be cross-pollinated by any of these crops. The list includes:

-       Asking your neighbors if they are growing modified crops, so you know if you are at risk of contamination;

-       Testing your seeds before you plant to make sure they are pure;

-       Cleaning all equipment (which is often rented or shared among farmers) before using it to plant, transport, or harvest organic crops;

-       Setting aside the first part of your harvest as nonorganic, since it's impossible to fully clean equipment before harvesting;

-       Planting later than your neighbors so their crops won't be pollinating at the same time as yours;

-       Sampling your crop regularly to see if parts of it, such as the edges, are contaminated;

-       Taking out insurance that covers you against potential losses if your crop becomes contaminated;

-       Growing a windbreak that would help prevent modified pollen from blowing into your crop;

-       Documenting and photographing your efforts to prevent contamination, in case you do lose your ability to sell organic seeds because of it and may have potential grounds to sue.

It's an onerous task list, and even with these precautions there's no guarantee growers will be able to keep their seeds pure; a decade ago, the Wall Street Journal tested 20 foods labeled GMO-free and found modified DNA in 16 of them.

"The organic farmer is kind of caught in this no-mans land right now," said Riddle.

It's the U.S. Department of Agriculture that has placed organic farmers in that no-mans land, where they sit as a sort of second-class growing citizen, whose livelihoods and business viability are now at the mercy of the genetically-modified-pollen carrying winds.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn is HCN's online editor. She writes frequently about agriculture and the environment.

Image of organic seeds courtesy Flickr user Moosicorn Ranch.

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