By Russell Libby
MOFGA Executive Director
Twenty years ago MOFGA pushed for labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods, which were just then entering the marketplace, and therefore the grocery store. The Legislature said that this was a federal issue, not a state one, and turned down the legislation, repeatedly. The federal government decided to treat GE crops the same as any other crop, and not require labeling of any kind.
Jump forward. Ninety-four percent of the soybean crop is now planted with genetically engineered seeds; 74 percent of the corn crop; 73 percent of cotton. Close to all canola. Now engineered traits are creeping into other crops: sugar beets and alfalfa on the commodity crop side, and sweet corn and zucchini on the vegetable side.
In the interim, almost all processed foods in the country include some component that is, or could be, from GE ingredients. After all, corn is just a way to make sweeteners and other products. Canola oil is used extensively. So are soybeans.
Unless you are a conscientious and deliberate shopper, these foods can easily be part of your diet, whether you support their production or not. That’s why MOFGA has supported labeling in every possible forum for all these years.
So what can we do now? I think three key steps make sense right now.
Be deliberate in our purchasing. Organic foods, and organic processed foods, are the simple and obvious choice. But we can also direct our food dollars to the institutions that make these choices: to the natural food stores and cooperatives that have been leaders in making organic food available; to the farmers’ markets and the CSAs. The stronger the demand, the more farmers will choose to not grow GE crops. For example, Maine Natural Oils in Presque Isle makes a non-GE canola oil from Aroostook County. That creates a real choice for farmers.
Support the challenge to the underlying patents that are helping prop up the GE industry in the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA) vs. Monsanto lawsuit. MOFGA is a party to this suit, and MOFGA farmer Jim Gerritsen of Wood Prairie Farm is president of OSGATA and a strong voice in the lawsuit.
Plant, save seed from, and grow again next year non-GE corn and soybean varieties. We need places where these seeds can be grown as pure varieties. Our farms are remote from the Midwest Corn Belt. We can be a refuge for many seed varieties that are becoming increasingly hard to isolate in some states.
As I think about it, there is a fourth step, but it’s going to take a lot of work and energy. And that involves being successful enough with these alternative crops, with the development of markets for non-GE crops, whether organic or not, to change the face of agriculture in Maine. We need to show that these crops work in a way that makes them real possibilities for the farmers who are already growing GE corn and canola in Maine.
The only way we’re going to have a GE-free Maine is to work with all farmers to show that there are options that work. That depends on all of us. But it’s the kind of goal that can happen only as we show success, over and over. Let’s make this the summer where we start that conversation.