Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association
Mow Me Less: Tales of a GE-Resistant Lawn

Publications \ The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener \ Winter 2000-2001 \ CR Lawn Keynote

CR Lawn
CR Lawn of Fedco Seeds and of the MOFGA Board delivered the keynote speech, “Mow Me Less,” at the 2000 Common Ground Country Fair.

By CR Lawn, Fedco Founder and MOFGA Treasurer

Thank you. I am deeply honored and moved to be here. A quarter century ago, in February, 1975, while I was living in a neighbor’s barn and building my house, I plunked down five bucks to join MOFGA and shared my intentions to start an organic market garden. I’ve never forgotten the warm reply I received from Tim Nason. Tim also sent the first three issues ever produced of The MOF&G. I still have Vol. 1, #1, and here it is. It has a column by Eliot Coleman and a letter from then-MOFGA president Mort Mather entitled “What Does MOFGA mean?” Mort has since graduated to judging the Harry S Truman manure pitch contest here at the Fair.

Fast forward seven years to 1982, Fedco Seeds’ first appearance at Common Ground Fair, in which we shared a booth (a practice now forbidden at the Fair) with the Midwives of Maine and a political group I’ve long since forgotten, and sold $158.10 of seeds and five T-shirts, despite maintaining only intermittent attendance at the booth (another forbidden practice today). At last year’s Fair Fedco had sales of exactly $15,325.04.

I like to think that Fedco and MOFGA have grown up together, from the days when many considered MOFGA to be a mere handful of hippies with some way-out ideas about soil, agriculture and society, and Fedco to be a quirky collection of visionaries with quaint notions about how people could work together to save money. Today I celebrate the good work that can be initiated by a handful of dedicated people who have a dream. Truly, MOFGA has come a long way. And it has done so because that dedicated band of people who wrote me in 1975 kept the faith. And I want you to remember this as I continue because their hard work and fortitude against all odds are the most important reason why I stand here today before you.

Today that small band has become a force to be reckoned with. Organic food is the fastest growing sector of the U.S. food economy, growing at about 20% per year. 1 Between 1995 and 1997, U.S. acreage in organic production increased by almost 50%, a trend which is continuing. 2 And while the number of farms and farmers nationwide continues its seemingly inexorable decline, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman reports that the number of organic farmers is increasing by 12% per year. 3 When the organic farmers didn’t like the organic standards proposed by the USDA, they responded with a record 275,000 comments, and the rules have been completely rewritten. With 3,000 members, MOFGA is the largest and the oldest state organic association in the country. And I understand more than 100 people joined yesterday, so that makes 3,100, and for all I know another 100 today, which would make the total 3,200. And our Fair is, year after year, the largest gathering of organic agriculture in the country as well as the only one in the state this year (and maybe the only such gathering in the whole country) with all food completely free of genetically modified organisms! Yes, we have much to celebrate.

And yet, the challenges before us are even more daunting than those faced by that small band of so-called hippies 25 years ago. There is a second reason why I stand here before you today. I am old enough to remember DDT. My parents were political progressives who decided to raise me and my brother in a rural environment. So they bought a 25-acre farm in Vermont just before World War II in 1940 (securing their $1,000 purchase with a down payment of $20!), saved up rationing coupons to make occasional trips there during the war, and moved in 1946, when I was just two months old. I still remember listening to the farm programs on the radio in the late forties. DDT was to be the saviour. Just spray and all insect damage would disappear from crops forever and ever more, amen. Theirs was a more naive age which still believed in progress without a price and used DDT without a qualm. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was still far in the future. No one knew DDT could cause harm. By the time they found out, it was much too late.

As farmers and gardeners we pride ourselves on being practical and sensible. Common sense tells us that if one approach to solving a problem is not working and is making it worse, we should try something else. The fraction of U.S. crops lost to insects is now nearly twice what it was in the 1940s, when synthetic pesticides were introduced. 4 As the bugs get more resistant, farmers have used more and stronger pesticides, leading to increased resistance, more bugs and still more pesticides. The biotechnology approach, which claims to reduce pesticide use, is looking more and more like merely an intensification of the same treadmill to oblivion. Ninety-nine percent of all first generation biotech products incorporated two traits: herbicide resistance or the Bt toxin. 5 Growers of Roundup Ready soybeans are using two to five times as much herbicide as conventional growers, according to a University of Wisconsin study. 6

Today we have a cancer epidemic. All three other members of my nuclear family died from different forms of cancer, leaving me the sole survivor at the ripe age of thirty-five. Now I’m not saying that DDT caused the cancers (though it might have) and I am not saying that genetic engineering will cause cancer, but I’m not saying it won’t. We don’t know what causes cancer.

The apologists for genetic engineering say that it has not been proven to cause harm. While the most recent scientific evidence should give pause, my real point is that the bio­engineers are asking the wrong question. The question is not whether genetically engineered foods have been shown to cause harm. The question is whether they have been proven safe, and they have not, because the technology has been rushed to market without adequate testing. Tell the giant corporations that we are not willing to risk that genetically engineered products could be the next DDT. Tell them that any harm from the products may not be discernible for two or three generations. And by then it will be too late, just as it was too late with DDT.

Now I want to tell you a lawn story, a tree story and a fish story. Given that I am myself a lawn, I feel eminently qualified on the subject of lawns. And so it was with some consternation that I read a recent E-mail taken from a July 9 New York Times story that Scotts Company in Arysville, Ohio; Monsanto, whom we all know; and Rutgers University have teamed up to try to engineer a Roundup-resistant, genetically engineered grass, a GE mow-me-less grass called lo-mow that grows slowly, and even grasses with luminescent genes that would make them glow. They envision a $10 billion market among golf courses and suburban lawns. 7 I personally prefer lawns that glow from the sunshine!

Turning to trees, Monsanto, International Paper, Westvaco Corporation and Fletcher Challenge Forests (don’t ask me what a challenge forest is) are investing $60 million to produce and market GE tree seedlings. 8 These trees can’t reproduce, leaving them with more energy to grow faster. Imagine if the gene causing infertility escaped to the woods!

Finally, my fish story. Now I’m not a fisherman but I know that most fish stories are about the one that got away. We can only hope that this one doesn’t get away! This is about my favorite eating fish, the salmon. Native salmon produce growth hormone only in the warm months. A/F Protein Inc. in Waltham, Mass., has developed a super salmon engineered with genes from an ocean flounder to produce growth hormone all year round. 9 They grow four to six times faster than conventional salmon. Although transgenic fish have not been approved for sale and no human health studies have been done or are even contemplated, A/F Protein already has advance orders for 15 million eggs and would be ready to ship next year, should they receive FDA approval. Like the infamous Bovine Growth Hormone in milk, which has been banned in almost every country in the world except the U.S., the fish would be regulated by the FDA as a new animal drug, not as a novel food product for human consumption.

Ecologists fear that if these salmon are raised in net pens in the ocean, they will probably escape – just as ordinary farm-raised salmon routinely escape and mate with wild populations. A study by two Purdue University scientists found that larger male fish have a huge mating advantage, attracting up to four times as many females as their smaller counterparts. (Now I’ll refrain from making any allegorical comparisons with other species!) Using a computer model to measure the ecological effect of just 60 transgenic fish released into a population of 60,000 wild fish, the scientists found that wild fish populations would dwindle to extinction in just 40 generations. 10 They dubbed their work “The Trojan Gene Hypothesis,” in honor of the Trojan Horse, which seemed innocuous but proved fatal.

Now A/F’s CEO is no dummy. He countered that they could sterilize the male fish before putting them in net pens, but the effectiveness of sterilization techniques, especially in male fish, is questionable. 11 I’m going to enjoy eating salmon while I can, because if the FDA approves transgenic salmon, I won’t be eating any more.

Now I want you to imagine that you were asked to take part in a controlled scientific experiment for a limited period of time. You would ingest certain foods which were not absolutely proven to be safe and were told that the research would have many benefits, indeed might help feed the world. Would you participate? [No hands went up.] Not even in a controlled experiment? Now let’s suppose you were made the subject of a similar experiment, only without being told, without any controls and with an indefinite time duration. Would you willingly take part? [a chorus of ‘Noes’.] Would you be angry if you found out? You are taking part in such an experiment – the most ambitious biological experiment ever undertaken. It is called genetic engineering. It has no controls, no time duration, no limits at all. Unlike laboratory experiments it cannot be contained. The whole Earth is the laboratory. Unlike most experiments whose products can be destroyed if we don’t like them, these GE products are alive, capable of reproducing with a will of their own. Sixty percent of all food products on your supermarket shelves now contain at least one GE ingredient. 12 The breathtaking spread of GE crops, a 14-fold increase from 5 million acres in 1996 to 70 million in 1998, 13 has been 99% concentrated in only three countriesthe United States, Canada and Argentina, with 75% of all acreage in the United States. 14 We rightfully cringe when we read about the Nazis’ so-called scientific and medical experiments, but this time we are the guinea pigs right here in the USA.

Well, never fear. The creators insist that these foods are safe. They’ve convinced our government watchdog agencies that these foods are substantially equivalent to unaltered foods and therefore require neither labeling nor significant restrictions to market access.

But a look at mounting evidence from many scientific studies is giving a very different picture. Research from Cornell and Iowa State Universities has confirmed that Bt corn pollen kills monarch butterflies. This impact on non-target species was not predicted prior to the release of Bt corn. 15 Research from Europe showed that beneficial insects that prey on aphids which have consumed Bt toxins have lower survival and reproductive rates than those which feed on healthy aphids. This impact was not researched or anticipated prior to release. 16 Research from NYU shows that Bt toxins exude from the roots of living corn plants and persist in the soil for at least 243 days with unknown effects on soil microorganisms. This impact was not predicted or researched prior to release. 17 Professor Hans Hinrich Kaatz found in a four-year study in Germany that GE pollen consumed by bees had its alien genes transferred to bacteria that live in the guts of the bees. The implication, that alien genes could move into other bacteria, including those in the human digestive system, was not anticipated or researched prior to the release of genetically altered Bt crops. 18 Roundup Ready soy, which Monsanto said in 1993 contained a single new strand of DNA, has now been found to have two other fragments of foreign DNA in it. This surely was not anticipated prior to release. 19 Volunteer canola has been found in Alberta which combines the three genes for resistance to three different herbicides. 20 So much for claims by GE corporations such as Novartis that “agricultural biotechnology is a precise scientific process.”

Despite repeated assurances from genetic engineers that herbicide-resistant weeds would not become a problem, farmers in Canada are having to eradicate GE weed canola, an expensive headache necessitating the use of additional toxic chemicals. Cotton, genetically engineered with Bt toxin to resist several insect pests, has become infested with stink bugs. This was not anticipated prior to the release of Bt cotton. 21 Monsanto responded by recommending that growers spray the stink bugs with highly toxic pesticides such as methyl parathion. So much for the bioengineers’ claim that GE crops will reduce reliance on insecticides.

The biotech industry promised that GE crops would be higher-yielding and more nutritious. But so far, Roundup Ready soy, which now comprises 54% of the North American soy crop, is a failure. Several studies show that it yields an average of 4 to 11% less than conventional varieties. 22 Other studies indicate that it may also be less nutritious. 23 And so, the industry has taken a public relations beating.

But don’t underestimate their intelligence and their deep pockets. Realizing the need to shore up their image, in the fall of 1999 they launched a massive PR campaign. Monsanto retained Burson-Marsteller, a global PR firm, at an annual cost of millions of dollars. 24 Seven so-called life-science companies formed the Council of Biotechnology Information and committed $50 million for each of three to five years to a multi-media initiative, including a toll-free consumer number and print and television advertising campaigns. 25 They devised programs to get into schools and universities to indoctrinate students with their pro-biotech propaganda.

This Monsanto Activity Guidebook, Sustainability, Seeds for Thought, with a teacher workshop and hand-on kits, is one product. Borrowing language from the organic movement, incorporating rigorous science and a set of ingenious experiments designed to engage schoolchildren and their teachers, this booklet nevertheless reinforces the dominant paradigm that plants are factories that will be redesigned to serve human needs so that biotechnology will feed the world. It was given free to more than 20,000 science teachers at the National Science Education Convention in Boston last spring.

The gene giants promise a new lineup of nutritionally and pharmaceutically enhanced foods. The star will be a new strain of rice called Golden Rice, genetically engineered to increase the beta-carotene content, using, among others, a gene from a daffodil. This rice, developed by the same Rockefeller Foundation that was the chief architect of the 1960s’ Green Revolution, will likely have the same effect as the Green Revolution. 26 In the short run, free distribution of the rice will reduce vitamin A deficiency and reduce hunger. But in the long run, it will have a devastating effect on small-scale, local subsistence economies and on biodiversity, driving people off farms into cities and driving scores of locally-adapted varieties and land-races of rice into extinction, while creating monocultures that rely on expensive outside chemical and irrigation inputs. Noted Indian physicist Vandana Shiva tells of one village which relies on 110 different varieties of edible food plants for its sustenance. 27 How tragic to replace that diversity with one strain of rice! Martha Crouch, formerly a geneticist at University of Indiana who left the field for ethical reasons, calls the Golden Rice experiment the Purina dog kibbles approach to human nutrition: One pellet will provide all the nutrients needed. 28

But there is a better approach to feeding the world. It is called organic agriculture, and biodiversity is an essential tenet. It has no appeal to large corporations because it doesn’t require expensive inputs which only they can supply. But it works. The Aug. 22 science section of the New York Times reported on a dramatic experiment in which thousands of farmers in China doubled their yields on rice, the world’s most important crop, without using chemical inputs, without using genetic engineering, and without spending a single extra penny. 29 Merely by planting a mixture of two different rices instead of large stands of a single variety, they radically restricted the incidence of rice blast, the most important disease of rice in the world. Even more significant, this was a vast study covering 100,000 acres. Its simple principle works on a large scale, and in fact, the size of the experiment created a macro as well as a micro-effect in slowing the disease. This could have huge implications for other crops.

Which brings me full circle to our seed supply and the crucial role of biodiversity. Perhaps even more compelling than the health and safety issues raised by biotechnology are its social and economic consequences. It has been the driving force in the rapid consolidation of the seed industry. Over the last 20 years, at the same time that the budget for the Antitrust Division decreased, the rate of agricultural mergers increased by 550 percent. 30 Today, 10 companies control 30% of the global seed trade, and five of them have virtually complete control over all genetically engineered crops. 31 Only four corporations control 70% of the U.S. seed corn market, 32 only five control 75% of the global vegetable seed market. 33 On June 28, Seminis, the world’s largest vegetable seed corporation with 40% of the U.S. market, announced that it was eliminating 2,000 of the 8,000 varieties in its line. 34 What a wealth of seed diversity is being put in jeopardy! And yet, as long as we entrust our seed supply to multinational corporations, we put ourselves at just such risk.

We will get no help from our U.S. Department of Agriculture. The very same department which a century ago distributed free, open-pollinated seed to farmers to stimulate production of the best varieties, that same department to which we are about to entrust administration of our organic standards, is co-patent holder of the infamous Terminator technology, which would create crops genetically programmed to produce sterile seed. In one century, the USDA has evolved from being friend of the farmer to being friend of the multinational corporation at the expense of the farmer and has left us quite possibly to face the ultimate irony: the seed that kills itself. Remember Vietnam when we had to kill the village in order to save it? Well, the USDA brings you, “We had to kill the seed to protect investments.” 35 Like that band of resolute MOFGA pioneers in 1975, we are left to our own resources.

As Maine’s own Will Bonsall (check out his display at the Ag Education tent or attend one or more of four different talks he is giving at the Fair) so eloquently pointed out in his keynote address at the New York NOFA Conference last January, there are some things that you just don’t get any kicks from having somebody else do for you. And as an example, he mentioned sex. Now seeds are all about sex, the sexual reproduction of plants. Seriously, I’ve thought a lot about what Will said and I believe he is right. When I came to Maine I couldn’t hammer in an eightpenny nail straight and yet I built my own 22x20 hippie cabin. It was one of the harder things I’ve ever done in my life because I’m not very patient with things like carpentry which require extreme precision, and I would never consider hiring myself out to build others’ houses. Yet, I wouldn’t trade the experience of building my own house for anything. Certain basic necessities like sex, food and shelter are so fundamental that we cannot be satisfied in leaving them to others. I believe the huge revival of interest in medicinal herbs has come from a desire to regain some control of maintaining our health instead of leaving it all in the hands of doctors and professionals. But there is an even more compelling reason why we must regain control over the foods we eat, and it is the same reason why we have local school boards. My mother served on one of them for years and so has my friend here Richie Tory. My mom always used to say that schools and education were too important to be left to the educators. So I say that food is too important to be left in the hands of giant corporations. If we continue to allow them to control our food supply we cannot be a free people. And that is why MOFGA is so important. It stands as a sort of state food board, and we also need local food boards just as we need local school boards.

Today we stand in relation to the seed about where the pioneering organic farmers of 40 years ago stood in relation to the land. Only a relative few are engaged in the painstaking work of preserving our genetic heritage. And yet, it takes only a few to make a beginning. Consider the pioneering work done by just one couple. Kent and Diane Whealy started with three varieties handed down from his grandfather and in only 25 years built an organization with almost 1,000 active seed savers maintaining more than 11,000 heritage varieties. And they changed the whole trend of gardening away from hybrids and back towards venerable old varieties, and now they are really beginning to get those varieties into circulation, not just among seed savers but out to all of us. Because seeds are like money. They are energy. When they accumulate and concentrate in a few hands, it is a sign of social disease. When they circulate freely and are regrown widely, it is a sign of social health – of social security.

And we have an enormous advantage over the pioneers of 40 years ago because we have already experienced the collective success of building upon what they began. Together we have already created a powerful movement in the last two generations. Today when I watch seed orders come in, I am awed by the extent of the progressive agricultural experiments taking place – scores and scores of organic farms, biodynamic farms, CSAs, community organizations, farms inspired by Bromfield, Acres USA, by Steiner, by Matsinobo Fukuoka. Today we have books to inspire and instruct us, appropriate tools to make our work easier, new direct markets, like farmers markets and CSAs. We still have a long way to go, but look how far we’ve come. And yet, there is a vital piece missing that stands at the beginning of it all – control of the seed.

Here’s what you can do: First, learn who controls the seed, how and why. Then begin to withhold support from those who are not worthy of it – the behemoth corporations and the genetic engineers. Do this by voting with your dollars. Support those small seed companies who are working to preserve the best open-pollinated varieties. Avoid buying from the big conglomerates. Will Bonsall suggests that we stop buying hybrids. Now that is easier said than done. Little work has been done on creating, improving or maintaining open-pollinated varieties over the last 60 years. Therefore, many hybrids today appear to be superior to open-pollinated varieties in earliness, disease resistance and appearance. The superiority of hybrids became the self-fulfilling prophecy of the seed wholesalers, and several hundred of the hybrid varieties are now classics of the vegetable trade. Those who make their living selling vegetables commercially will not willingly go cold turkey on Copra onions, Sunburst Patty Pan squash, Snow Crown cauliflower, Silver Queen sweet corn or Celebrity tomato, all unfortunately controlled by the same behemoths who are bringing us transgenic crops.

However, ours is the slow and patient path and we can begin by setting aside some plots to experiment with open-pollinated varieties which might conceivably replace these hybrids. We can go further by educating our customers to appreciate diversity – that not all tomatoes have to be red, not all peppers need be shaped like a bell, that some tomatoes, though blemished on the surface, taste better than some of those flawless-looking pretty faces.

Why open-pollinated seeds instead of hybrids? Because hybrid seeds don’t reproduce true-to-type and therefore cannot be saved and replanted the next year if you want to get the same variety. Therefore, when you use hybrids, you have to go back to the seed company every year for new seed. Think of hybrids as incomplete varieties which have never been stabilized. The big seed wholesalers have an economic disincentive to complete them, because they want you to be dependent. Most of our great open-pollinated varieties started as genetic sports in the field or as products of deliberate farmer breeding. They were then completed by farmers, stabilized so that their seed would reproduce true-to-type year after year. Using open-pollinated seeds gives you the potential to save your own seed.

There are glaring gaps in our lineup of good open-pollinated varieties. Where are the good, early-season, open-pollinated muskmelons? How about an op Brussels sprout that produces decent-sized sprouts? Cauliflower that will make tight white curds and won’t get ricey even in heat? We at Fedco and at scores of other alternative seed companies, and the people in the Seed Savers Exchange, will be striving over the next years to find the best old varieties from all over the world to fill these gaps. Please support us in our painstaking work of reclaiming our heritage and replacing those hybrid interlopers from the corporate behemoths. Do you have seed or know of seed for an old variety that has been handed down? Get it into seed savers and send a trial sample to your favorite seed company. Do you know of good old varieties not readily available in the catalogs? Let your favorite small seed supplier know about them.

Here is the Long Pie pumpkin. It was once the only pie pumpkin considered worth growing in Androscoggin County. (They didn’t know anything about those round ones.) It has been preserved largely because of three people. LeRoy Souther, an aging Mainer from Livermore Falls had been saving seed from it for many years before he brought it to Common Ground Fair sometime in the 1980s. He presented it to John Navazio, an avid squash enthusiast who had a booth at the Fair displaying the diversity of winter squash. Navazio grew it out and loved it. It makes the creamiest, most delicious pumpkin pies.

Navazio took it with him when he went to the University of Wisconsin to learn to be a plant breeder. Later when he went to work for Garden City Seeds in Montana, he multiplied it out and got it into their seed catalog. After that it came to my attention in Fedco’s variety trials. Now it is widely available because Winnie and Peter Noyes of Thorndike grew more than 50 pounds of seed for Fedco in the last two years. It has been saved from extinction. I could tell you plenty of other such stories if I had more time.

Consider saving your own seed. If you want to know how, get a copy of Rob Johnston’s simple, inexpensive booklet, Growing Garden Seeds, or Suzanne Ashworth’s more detailed classic, Seed to Seed. Start with something easy on a small scale, like beans or tomatoes. If you are successful, maybe you’d like to join the Seed Savers Exchange and adopt a few favorite varieties to maintain and preserve.

J.J. Haapala has started a project in Oregon in which he is enlisting growers to help the National Plant Germplasm System, our national repository of seeds. 36 Because it has been chronically underfunded, it has hundreds of varieties which have been sitting for years with just an accession number, ungrown and never described. Participants in JJ’s Farmer Cooperative Genome Project will adopt a variety, grow it out and describe it and return fresh seed. Undoubtedly this project will unearth some real treasures, terrific varieties which will eventually find their way into the Seed Savers Exchange and into our seed catalogs.

If you really develop an interest and want to move beyond growing tiny quantities of a few varieties, take advantage of the increasing opportunities in years ahead to grow seed crops commercially for small companies like Fedco. We have a long list of superior old varieties unearthed in our trials that are just waiting for a grower like you to come along and plant a successful crop so they can find their way into our catalog where they can be enjoyed by hundreds of farmers and gardeners.

Once you’ve mastered the art of seed saving and honed your observation skills, you may want to reconnect with our heritage of 10,000 years and do your own plant breeding. It is not difficult, especially now that Chelsea Green has decided to reprint Carol Deppe’s groundbreaking work, Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties. Check out this brilliant book when it is released later this fall. It makes genetics understandable to a layperson, even someone like me who never liked science in school! Plant breeding is too important to be left to the professionals, especially when the Monsantos of the world have most of the pros in their hip pockets!

Let me introduce a few of the pioneers in the movement to bring plant breeding back to the farm. They, and not the genetic engineers, are creating the vegetable lineup for the Fedco catalogs of the future. Glenn Drowns bred a wonderful open-pollinated keeper watermelon called Blacktail Mountain when he was still a teenager and is still hard at work preserving rare breeds of poultry and endangered heirloom seed varieties at Sand Hill Preservation Center in Iowa. 37 Tim Peters is breeding worthy open-pollinated broccolis and storage tomatoes and more. 38 Frank Morton in Oregon works with lettuces, mustards and other brassicas, wildlings and flowers to create new varieties out of old standbys. 39 You can see some of his work with kale and broccoli at the Fedco booth. Fedco has entered into a consortium of small seed companies, none of whom could afford to hire a plant breeder on their own, who are cooperating by each helping underwrite Morton’s breeding work.

I expect to see more collaboration among alternative seed companies in the near future. Fedco and Pinetree in Maine already buy some items jointly. Perhaps we small seed companies will be able to share seed growers and crops to help create better economies of scale in the years ahead. Maybe we’ll even be able to get together an alternative to the American Seed Trade Association, whose support of biotechnology and so-called free trade no longer represents the beliefs of many of us. We can draw inspiration from the collaborative work of Tom Stearns of High Mowing Farm in Vermont, who, along with the Council for Responsible Genetics, is the primary architect of the Safe Seed Pledge, signed by 60 seed companies and organizations who’ve agreed not to knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants. 40 Tom contacted a core group of eight or ten companies and together over many conversations we hashed out mutually acceptable wording for the pledge. Please support those suppliers who signed the pledge.

These are some of the ways we develop an alternative seed production that will be the foundation of our alternative food production. This slow, patient work is profoundly political, for those of you who engage in it will allow the Fedcos of the world to turn our backs on Novartis and Seminis and offer seeds we really believe in, in quantities you need at prices we can all afford. We will replace the planned obsolescence designed by the seed wholesalers with reverence to old varieties that have stood the test of time for generations and will still be found in Fedco’s 50th catalog and in our 100th catalog in the year 2078!

But this fun work, this adult treasure hunt following up clues, finding seed, trialing, seeking out growers and finding ways to cooperate and collaborate is only half our work. We must also buy ourselves enough time to lay the foundations for our alternative, to mature our new systems and solidify our new structures. The harder half of our work is equally important, the not-slow, not-patient, overtly political work we must do to create a new climate where the commercialization of suicidal terminator seed is unthinkable, where genetically engineered crops are extensively tested and heavily regulated before they are allowed to be marketed, if they are allowed at all, where transgenic foods are labeled so we will all know what we are buying, and where organic farmers are protected from genetic drift by placing the financial onus on the purveyors and growers of genetically altered crops, where it belongs.

That work begins by knowing what we put in our mouths. It is not easy, with no labels and sparse information, for busy people like us to think about the routine act of eating. 41 But we must. Buy organic whenever you can. It is the only secure way right now to be GE-free. Ask your natural food store not to stock genetically engineered products and to become proactive in asking suppliers to guarantee that their products have not been genetically altered. Call the suppliers yourself to find out their policies and let them know you won’t eat transgenic foods. Tell your supermarket you want BST-free milk. Tell your legislators and your representatives and your senators that you support mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods and an outright ban on the sale of Terminator seeds. Tell them that you support more money for our underfunded National Plant Germplasm System and funding to restore classical plant breeding programs to our land grant universities. Write, phone or fax Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman. 42 Tell him that the use of public research dollars to develop Terminator technologies and genetic seed sterilization is an abomination and a gross misuse of public funds for private benefit at public expense. Ask him to stop using scarce research dollars to pursue dangerous anti-farmer technologies that threaten biodiversity.

Just as education is too important to be left in the hands of educators, and seed production is too important to be relinquished to multinational corporations, so politics is too crucial to be left to the politicians. Let me say a word in defense of a venerable Maine institution, the citizen’s initiative, which has recently come under attack by our Governor, who feels the state should institute tougher rules for referenda. 43 One of his possible suggestions, already rejected by the last legislature, was to prohibit organizers from collecting signatures at polling places, a prohibition that would make it virtually impossible to get enough signatures to force a referendum on any issue. What better place to collect names than at the polls where everyone is registered to vote, at their proper venue, and of the proper mindset to deal with civic issues? Far from denigrating the referendum process because it has been used frequently in the past 20 years, Governor King and all of us should be proud of Maine’s level of citizen involvement, which has produced 12 referenda in the past decade. It is no coincidence that Maine had the highest voter participation record in the country in each of the last two presidential election years, and it took more than the charms of Bob Dole or Bill Clinton to bring that about in 1996. The presence of three referenda that year, including the controversial ban clearcutting proposal, definitely stimulated interest and turnout. 44 I have to be amused at the Governor’s assertion that the legislature is less beholden to special interests today than when the first referendum was held in 1911. Indeed, when MOFGA sought to pass a very limited bill requiring labeling of unprocessed GE foods, lobbyists descended on Augusta in swarms to kill the legislation. It seemed like Russell [Libby] against the whole world. And so, I ask you to support the referendum process, to take part in it as citizens, and to support Maine Right to Know, a small band of activists no larger than that of MOFGA’s original founders, who are defying the odds to try to make Maine the first state to institute labeling of all genetically engineered foods sold in the state. Check out their booths, near the orchard and near the amphitheater.

Allow me a final digression. We live today in an age of devalued words. Here are three examples: health insurance, social security and conservative. During a recent visit from a friend in Oregon, the conversation came around to the need for universal health insurance. I pointed out that proposed solutions, as needed as they may be, mostly address access to health care only after a disaster. Pointing to a quart of freshly pressed organic carrot juice, I turned to my friend and said, “Here is my health insurance policy.”

This here (oops, looks like I forgot one of my props but just pretend I’m holding it) is my new social security card, procured only after a struggle with the federal bureaucracy. While this card might be enough to get me on an airplane, it isn’t going to give me any real social security. Those of us who are growers of crops or tenders of animals who eat crops know that true social security comes from good soil and good seed. In fact our seed is far more in jeopardy than our federal Social Security program, and the loss of control of our seed threatens far more significant consequences than the loss of the federal Social Security system ever could.

And most importantly, the word conservative. For we must reclaim that word conservative, take it back from those who long ago hijacked it, and restore it to its true place. To understand what conservative is, we must first understand what it is not. It is not about the unfettered opportunity for the few to amass wealth at the expense of the many. It is not about the unchecked exploitation of natural resources for the benefit of the few at the expense of future generations, and it is not about preaching “family values” while pursuing policies which tear families all over the world asunder. It is not about conducting unprecedented biological experiments with our own citizens as the primary guinea pigs, it is not about private ownership and patenting of genes that rightfully belong to the commons of all living beings, and it is not about good food for those few who can afford it and junk food for all the rest. It is about the conservation of precious resources, the respect of cherished values, and the preservation of our genetic inheritance. Who could be more conservative than the organic farmer who faithfully builds his/her soil, patiently learns and practices his/her craft and carefully intertwines matter and spirit into a whole enterprise with integrity? Who is more conservative than the savers and preservers of the best open-pollinated seed varieties, strains which are the products of 10,000 years of observation and crop improvement? We must take back our heritage while we still have time. And it all begins with the seed.

Let us heed these words from Oren Lyons, one of the faithkeepers of the Onondaga Nation: “We were told that the seed is the Law. Indeed, it is the Law of Life. It is the Law of Regeneration. Within the seed is the mysterious and spiritual force of life and creation. Our mothers nurture and guard that seed, and we respect and love them for that, just as we love Mother Earth for the same spiritual work and mystery.” 45

Knowing that the issues we face cut right to the heart of our relationship with all living beings, let us go forth to continue the good work we have begun.


01. In Good Tilth, Vol. 11, No. 2 as reported in The Natural Farmer, Fall 2000, p.6.

02. Ibid.

03. ATTRA News, Apr. 2000, as quoted in The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, Sept.-Nov. 2000, “Genetically Oddified Morgue-anisms,” by Jean English, p.2.

04. RMI Solutions, “Attack of the Genetically Modified Organisms,” p. 23.

05. World Watch, July-Aug. 1999, p. 22, “The Emperor’s New Crops,” by Brian Halweil.

06. The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, July 2000 Special Edition, p. 5. In a survey of over 8,000 field trials conducted by the University of Wisconsin, Dr. Charles Benbrook found that farmers growing Roundup Ready soy beans used 2-5 times more herbicide per acre, yet got 5% fewer bushels per acre than those growing conventional non-GE soy.

07. The New York Times, July 8, 2000, “Suburban Genetics: Scientists Searching for a Perfect Lawn,” by David Barboza, reported in The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, Sept-Nov. 2000, p. 49.

08. IPS World News, May 4, 2000, by Danielle Knight, reported in The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, Sept-Nov. 2000, p. 49.

09. GeneWatch, July 2000, Vol. 13, No. 3, “Fishy Engineering,” by Kimberly Wilson, p.1.

10. Ibid., p. 4.

11. GeneWatch, Sept. 2000, Vol. 13, No. 4, “Biotech Regulation under Attack,” by Bette Hilerman, p. 6.

12. The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, July 2000 Special Edition, p. 2.

13. World Watch, July-Aug.1999, “The Emperor’s New Crops,” by Brian Halweil, p. 21

14. Ibid.

15. FWD: Guest Editorial: “Giv. Vilsack and Genetically Engineered Crops,” by Jim Riddle, as appeared in Des Moines Register, May 4, 2000.

16. FWD: Guest Editorial: “Giv. Vilsack and Genetically Engineered Crops,” by Jim Riddle, as appeared in Des Moines Register, May 4, 2000.

17. New England Farmer, January 2000, “Bt in the Hot Seat, again!” by Bill Pardee, p. 38.

18. The Observer, May 28, 2000, “GM Genes Jump Species Barrier,” by Anthony Barnett, as reported in The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, Sept-Nov 2000, p. 48.

19. Scotland on Sunday, May 30, 2000, as reported in The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, Sept-Nov. 2000, p. 48.

20. Western Producer, Feb. 10, 2000, “Triple-Resistant Canola Weeds Found in Alberta,” by Mary MacArthur as reported in The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, Sept-Nov. 2000, p. 48.

21. BioDemocracy News, May 2000, No. 27 as reported in The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, Sept-Nov 2000, p. 48.

22. Seeds & Crops Digest, Aug/Sept. 2000, p. 34. A University of Nebraska study showed Roundup Ready soybeans had yields of 6-11% less than corresponding conventional varieties. See also the University of Wisconsin study referenced in footnote 6.

23. A study in a 1999 issue of the Journal of Medicinal Food, Vol. 1, No. 4, indicates that compared with nonmodified soy varieties, genetically-altered herbicide-tolerant varieties may contain lower levels of potentially beneficial plant estrogens.

24. The New York Times, Nov. 12, 1999, “Biotech Companies Take on Critics of Gene-Altered Food,” p. 1, A18.

25. American Vegetable Grower, May 2000, “Got Biotech?” by Jamie Gooch, p. 6.

26. The New York Times, May 16, 2000, “AstraZeneca to Sell a Genetically Engineered Strain of Rice,” by David Barboza, p. C8.

27. The text is slightly inaccurate. The correct quote from Dr. Shiva is, “Women farmers in Bengal use more than 100 plants for green leafy vegetables.” Genetic Engineering News, Feb. 15, 2000, referencing an article by Dr. Shiva entitled “Genetically Engineered Vitamin A Rice: A Blind Approach to Blindness Prevention,” which appeared at on Feb. 14, 2000 as reported in The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, Sept-Nov. 2000, p. 50.

28. Acres USA, May 2000, “Rude Awakening” (An Interview with Martha Crouch, Ph.D.) p. 31.

29. The New York Times, Science Times, Aug. 22, 2000, “Simple Method Found to Increase Crop Yields Vastly,” by Carol Kaesuk Yoon, p. D1.

30. Keynote speech by Michael Sligh of Rural Advancement Foundation International at Common Ground Country Fair at Unity, Maine, on Sept. 25, 1999.

31. The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, July 2000 Special Edition, p. 5.

32. Financial Times, Sept. 13, 1999, as quoted in The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, July 2000 Special Edition, p. 5.

33. News from RAFI, July 17, 2000, E-Mail, “Earmarked for Extinction? Seminis Eliminates 2,000 varieties.”

34. Ibid. Seminis announced its “global restructuring and optimization plan” on June 28, 2000.

35. See Fact Sheet “Why USDA’s Technology Protection System (AKA ‘Terminator’) Benefits Agriculture” on USDA website for their convoluted rationale.

36. The address is: Farmer Cooperative Genome Project, Oregon Tilth Research and Education, 30848 Maple Drive, Junction City, OR 97448, or J.J. Haapala (541) 998-3069.

37. His address is: 1878 230th St., Calamus, IA 52729.

38. The information is outdated. I understand that Tim Peters has taken a job in the conventional seed trade and has had to suspend his independent research and breeding in the interim.

39. His address is: Echo Hills Rd., PO Box 509, Philomath, OR 97370.

40. For a booklet with names and addresses of all the signees, write Kimberly Wilson, Council for Responsible Genetics, 5 Upland Rd., Cambridge, MA 02140 or call (617) 868-0870.

41. Co-op Voices Unite, Blue Hill Food Coop, Box 1133, Blue Hill, ME 04614, (207) 359-2282, has the best list I’ve seen of some brands to avoid (processed foods which have tested positive for the presence of genetically engineered ingredients) and brands to embrace (companies that eschew GMOs in their products).

42. His address is Dan Glickman, Secretary of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 200-A Whitten Bldg., 1400 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, DC 20250, or call (202) 720-3631, fax (202) 720-2166.

43. Portland Press Herald, Aug. 17, 2000, “King Wants Tougher Rules for Citizen Referendums,” by Paul Carrier.

44. The 1996 clearcutting referendum attracted the extraordinarily high total of 596,874 voters (way more than the 421,009 who voted in the 1998 gubernatorial election) and barely shy of the 1996 presidential vote of 605,897.

45. Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation of the Haudenosanunee, as quoted in the 2000 Abundant Life Seed Foundation catalog, p. 63.

Helpful Periodicals and Web Sites

The Campaign for Food Safety, 860 Highway 61, Little Marais, MN 55614, (218) 226-4164, Public interest organization whose primary interest is in safeguarding our food.

The Campaign to Label GE Foods, Has instant form letters to print and send to government officials urging them to label GE food. Citizen action is only a click away!

Fedco Seeds, PO Box 520, Waterville, ME 04903, (207) 873-7333. Annual seed catalog addresses seed industry issues and includes good resource directory.

The Gene Exchange, Direct Mail Administrator, UCS, 2 Brattle Square, Cambridge, MA 02238-9105, (617) 547-5552, fax (617) 864-9405, Newsletter of the Union of Concerned Scientists critiques the biotech industry using rigorous scientific analysis. No knee-jerk here.

Genetic Engineering and its Dangers Compiled by Dr. Ron Epstein at San Francisco State University has a wide range of good essays relating to GE and is a good place to start your GE education.

GeneWatch, a bulletin of the Council for Responsible Genetics, the folks who put out the Safe Seed Pledge. Much useful info, strictly partisan. 5 Upland Rd., Suite 3, Cambridge, MA 02140.

Hort Ideas, Greg/Pat Williams, 750 Black Lick Rd., Gravel Switch, KY 40328. Useful news for gardeners and farmers, lately much thought-provoking coverage of terminator and traitor technology.

Mothers for Natural Law, PO Box 1177, Fairfield, IA 52526, (515) 472-2809, Operates a public awareness campaign on the dangers of GE foods. A good place to find out about which brands have GMOs and which are GMO-free.

NERAGE (Northeast Resistance Against Genetic Engineering) operates out of the Institute for Social Ecology, 1118 Maple Hill Rd., Plainfield, VT 05667, (802) 454-8493, Links local activists in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont for direct action.

RAFI (Rural Advancement Foundation International), PO Box 670, Pittsboro, NC 27312, (919) 542-1396, A leading international non-governmental organization advocating for small and medium-size farmers. Responsible for naming ‘terminator technology’ and always at the cutting edge of the movement to rein in biotechnology and hold the giant corporations accountable.

Science News, Science Service, 1719 N St. NW, Washington, DC 20036. Keep up with the latest developments in the biotech field. Short reports, easily accessible, neutral.

Seed & Crops Digest, 2302 W. 1st, Cedar Falls, IA 50613. A more progressive industry perspective than that found in Seed World. Believes biotech is here to stay but should be labeled because the future is in value-added identity-preserved products.

Seed Savers Exchange, 3076 North Winn Rd, Decorah, IA 52101, (319) 382-5990, fax (319) 382-5872. For the last 25 years at the front lines of the battle to preserve our genetic heritage. 1,000 members preserve thousands of varieties; thousands more maintained at the organization’s Heritage Farm. Three publications a year, lately have been outspoken about the evils of genetic engineering and the consolidation of the seed trade.

Seed World, 380 E. NW Highway, Des Plaines, IL 60016-2282. Here’s the industry perspective, parroting the ASTA (American Seed Trade Association) and biotech party line.

Small Farm Today, 393 W. Ridge Trail Rd., Clark, MO. 65243-9525. The Apr-May 1999 issue contains an invaluable report by Dr. William Heffernan, Dept. of Rural Sociology at the University of Missouri entitled “Consolidation in the Food and Agricultural System.” Best analysis of the food system I’ve yet found.


Against the Grain: Biotechnology and the Corporate Takeover of Your Food, Marc Lappé and Britt Bailey. Common Courage Press, 1998.

Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge, by Vandana Shiva, South End Press, 1997, 148 pages.

The Biotech Century: Harnessing the Gene and Remaking the World, by Jeremy Rifkin, Putnam, 1998, 272 pages.

Genetically Engineered Food: Changing the Nature of Nature, Martin Teitel and Kimberly Wilson, Park Street Press, 1999, 144 pages.

Genetic Engineering, Food and Our Environment: A Brief Guide, by Luke Anderson, 1999, 159 pages.

Milk: The Deadly Poison, by Robert Cohen, Argus, 1997.

Spoiled: The Dangerous Truth about a Food Chain Gone Haywire, by Nichols Fox, Penguin Putnam, 1998.

Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply, by Vandana Shiva, South End Press, 1999, 140 pages.

MOF&G Cover Winter 2000-2001