Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association
By Sharon Tisher

For two years now, the National Family Farm Coalition has sponsored a Farmers’ Summit on Genetic Engineering in Manassus, Virginia, in conjunction with the Farm Aid concert. Last year, I was stranded in the Bangor airport with no way to get there on time. This year, I was delighted to make it, representing both MOFGA and NESAWG (Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group).

The summit was a treasure trove of the latest information on biotech science, policy and politics – and it was just plain wonderful to be in a room full of farmers of all sorts from all over the country who were dedicated to fighting agribusiness’s biotech agenda. As Carolyn Mugar, Executive Director of Farm Aid, put it, this meeting was perhaps the most important of all in the on-going biotech battles: “Farmers are at the point of production. If farmers don’t plant it, we won’t have GM food.”

Jim Hightower, former Texas Commissioner of Agriculture, led the meeting by focusing on the bigger problem behind the biotech agenda: the “corporatiza­tion of world agriculture is the goal. A few global corporations greedily have put themselves in charge of agriculture.” The “first step” in this goal, Hightower contended, is the “demise of the family farm… The family farm isn’t passing on; it’s being mugged and murdered.” Where, Hightower asked, are the presidential candidates on this issue?

Michael Hansen of Consumer’s Union gave the summit an overview of the regulation (or lack thereof) of ag biotech, dating from the creation of the so-called “Coordinated Framework” under the 1980s Republican administrations. The decision then, which still holds today, was that no new statutes would govern the development of engineered plants, microbes and animals. Any new issues would simply be squeezed into the existing regulatory framework, with a coordination of the EPA, FDA and USDA, each addressing its own turf issues as well as possible. As a consequence, certain new creatures, such as GE fish, have fallen through the cracks of governmental oversight. Regulations designed for chemical contaminants that present no possibility of biological reproduction or gene flow into unexpected organisms now try to cope with the risks of manufactured life. Hansen pointed out that the United States, the major producer of biotech seed, stands alone in the international community. In the Codex Alimentarus, the food standards committee of the United Nations, the United States is the only country arguing against mandatory labeling, and the only country that doesn’t yet require safety testing of GE foods.

Mardi Mellon, a lawyer with a doctorate in microbiology on the staff of the Union of Concerned Scientists, pointed out that there are three critical areas in a scientific analysis of the success of biotech crops: not just risk, which has received the lion’s share of attention, but also benefits, and alternatives. In the area of benefits, Mellon stressed “how disappointing biotech is on its own terms.” Twenty-five years ago, the prophets of biotech were promising higher yields, more nitrogen-fixing plants, and combinations of dozens of functioning inserted genes in a single species. So far, the industry has produced only a single functioning gene in each plant, and “no crop out there even has the potential for increased yields.” Mellon admitted that there was some demonstrated accomplishment in chemical pesticide reduction with the Bt crops, particularly cotton, but “that benefit will last no longer than pesticide resistance to Bt develops.” Certainly, Mellon noted, there’s been “no demonstrated economic benefit to farmers.”

Turning to risk, Mellon noted how astonishingly “little we know about the risks.” The UCS’s own analysis was consistent with that of a researcher who published a report in the June 9, 2000, issue of Science magazine. The writer undertook a comprehensive search for published, peer-reviewed studies that in any significant way addressed the risks of biotech foods. The result? Only four: the two reports by British researcher Dr. Arpad Pusztai, which were so controversial because they found significant evidence of dietary risks in potatoes that incorporated the snowdrop lectin protein; and two reports commissioned by Monsanto. Neither of the Monsanto studies on GE soybeans (now found in infant formula) addressed, Mellon noted, the impact on infant health, either of laboratory animals or of humans. Mellon lamented the fact that we haven’t made resources available to the scientific community to do essential testing of these foods.

On environmental risks, Mellon noted that the harmful impact of GE pollen on the monarch butterfly has now been demonstrated in the field as well as the lab. She added that new evidence shows that GE herbicide resistant crops that use the cauliflower mosaic virus (CMV) as a promoter can just turn off in the middle of the summer as a result of a CMV infection. There is a “huge scientific quandary” on the subject of allergenicity of GE foods. The EPA has finally turned down an application for Bt corn out of a concern that it may be an allergen. [Mellon’s speech came days before the widely reported announcement that this variety of corn, marketed by Aventis and approved only for use in animal feed, had been found in Taco Bell taco shells, resulting in a massive recall of the shells by Kraft. In an unprecedented cry for tighter regulations by industry, Kraft asked the EPA not to approve any GE crops for animal feed that were not also approved for human consumption.] Mellon emphasized that we still don’t have the methods to test GE foods for their potential to induce allergies.

On the subject of alternatives to GE crops, Mellon lamented the fact that so few resources have been devoted to finding ways to accomplish the same goals of pest control and increased productivity without engineering genes. She pointed to a sustainable ag study in China on controlling rice blast. Researchers found that by planting two kinds of rice that matured at different times, yields were increased by 18% and rice blast was controlled without any inputs. “This is the kind of result biotech would kill for,” commented Mellon. [Coincidentally, days before the conference, the USDA had announced the award of $100 million in research grants – the largest sum for ag research in a long time. One conference participant who had won a small piece of that commented that 50% of the awards were for biotech, and only $7 to $10 million for projects that could be characterized as organic.]

Michael Sligh, of the Rural Advancement Foundation International, focused on the perils of over-concentration in the seed industry. Just 10 agribusiness companies control 33% of the world seed trade and 10 agrochemical companies control 91% of the agrochemical market. Five companies control 75% of the global vegetable seed market. The consequences of monopolization are profound risks to biodiversity. Seminis Seed, a Mexican company that supplies seeds for 40% of all vegetables sold in U. S. grocery stores and controls nearly one-fifth of the worldwide fruit and vegetable seed market, announced that it would eliminate 2,000 varieties of seeds, or 25% of its inventory. This issue goes beyond agriculture, Sligh noted; it’s a question of “human rights versus corporate greed.”

George Naylor, an Iowa farmer and a plaintiff in an antitrust lawsuit against Monsanto, discussed the problems confronting the farmer trying to grow GE-free crops. Naylor wants to grow and market GE-free corn, but can’t get his local elevator to segregate his crop, and faces prohibitive transportation costs to get his corn to a market. He also faces constant peril of contamination by gene drift. Iowa State University recommends a 1000-foot buffer zone to protect against GE pollen drift [see study by Charles Huburgh at www.iowagrain.org]. A half mile by 1000 feet is 50 acres, Naylor noted – 50 acres that Naylor can’t cultivate because his neighbor has GE corn planted up to the fence. Naylor also cited emerging evidence that non-GE varieties of corn seed are testing positive for GE genes, so you can’t guarantee a seed is non-GE even if it is a non-GE variety. [In one study, Pioneer non-Bt corn tested 62% positive for GE genes; only organic, untreated seed tested GE free].

We next heard from Elizabeth Cronise, a Washington antitrust attorney representing Naylor and other farmers in an on-going lawsuit against Monsanto. The suit, which is currently in the midst of massive document production by Monsanto, may create major problems for the industry. The suit charges that Monsanto and other biotech companies fixed the price for GM seeds, which is per se illegal, and built a cartel. The scheme allowed them to raise $800 million in five years in technology fees, potentially refundable by a court to the farmers, if the court agrees with the plaintiffs. The lawsuit also alleges that Monsanto rushed Roundup Ready products to market in the United States, knowing that they were not export approved in Europe, because the herbicide Roundup goes off patent this year. That means that companies can start selling generic Roundup (glyphosate), robbing Monsanto of its profits from the world’s largest selling pesticide. But with the advent of Roundup Ready crops, Monsanto required farmers to sign contracts forcing them to use only Roundup pesticide, not generic varieties (also an illegal tie-in, the suit alleges): all a cleverly designed scheme to keep profits from Roundup flowing after the patent expires, unless this suit succeeds in unraveling it. The lawsuit raises environmental issues too, contending that Monsanto inadequately tested for environmental and health effects. Monsanto claims it has performed 20 studies that confirm the safety of GE soybeans, but declines to produce them to the public. Cronise is currently in St. Louis reviewing Monsanto documents, and has plans to depose 300 witnesses before the trial scheduled for July 2001. You can download the complaint and get periodic updates on the suit at www.cmht.com.

Perhaps the most intriguing and disturbing presentation came from Todd Leake, of the Dakota Resource Council on GE wheat. Whereas GE corn is already totally out of Pandora’s box and close to contaminating virtually all of the nation’s non-organic acreage, a similar consequence for GE wheat is still preventable. Leake pointed out that wheat is the world’s most widely eaten grain, and the stuff of religious sacrament. But it, too, like the rest of the world’s foodstuffs, risks becoming Monsanto’s corporate intellectual property. Roundup Ready wheat has been approved for field trials in several states, and plans exist to put it on the market in 2003. It would be impossible, Leake noted, to segregate GE wheat. It will mix in storage, in the harvesting machinery and in distribution, and will cross-pollinate in the field. Now the entire Canadian canola crop is considered GE, and a same fate may greet GE wheat.

Lastly, we heard from Jane Akre, the former Fox TV investigative reporter. Fox fired Akre and her husband, Steve Wilson, when they refused to go along with Fox’s editorial desecration (under pressure from Monsanto) of their report on the health problems with recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone. Akre was fresh from her $425,000 verdict against Fox in a Florida Jury trial, but still bruised from the force of corporate strong-arming that came to bear in the trial. She anticipates years of appeals before she sees a penny of the damages the jury awarded her, and marveled at Fox’s unabashed claim that it was “completely vindicated” by the verdict (which found for Akre but not for Wilson). “They lie about lying about the news,” Akre quipped. Akre noted that Fox’s interesting theory on appeal is that it is “not against a law or regulation to slant the news,” hence they cannot be found guilty of retaliating against her for reporting their conduct to the FCC. In the face of the marked absence of national media attention to their trial, Akre and Wilson set up a website, www.foxbghsuit.com, to report on developments. Akre noted that Monsanto is the biggest hitter on their website. Akre’s advice to prospective litigants: “I would look long and hard before turning to litigation. It isn’t anything a family can handle. It’s way too much.”

Last year, the Farmer Summit released a Farmer’s Declaration on Genetic Engineering, signed by over 30 farm groups, including MOFGA. This year, the farm groups kicked off a Farmer to Farmer Campaign on Genetic Engineering that will provide farmers with accurate information on genetic engineering and the impacts it will have on agriculture. Very useful and readable fact sheets for distribution to farmers are in draft form, and will soon be finalized.

The various sessions of this summit gave the strong sense that the battle against biotech dominance of agriculture, though fierce, was winnable. Ronnie Cummins, Executive Director of the Organic Consumers Association [www.organicconsumers.org], perhaps best summarized this perspective when he commented that, “GE food is the Achilles’ heel of industrial agriculture, and industrial agriculture is the Achilles’ heel of corporate global dominance.” [I read Cummins’ new book, Genetically Engineered Food: A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers, on the way back from the conference. It is an excellent and readable guide; my only complaint is that in summarizing state activism and legislative activity, Cummins fails to mention that Maine was the first state legislature to consider a GE labeling bill, supported by MOFGA back in 1993, and twice reintroduced since.]
MOF&G Cover Winter 2000-2001