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Biotech Briefing The Road Not Taken

by Dan Rademacher

The most heated controversies over genetic engineering in this country have centered on millions of acres of genetically altered corn and soybeans across the Midwest. Here in California, corn and soybeans are small potatoes compared with crops like grapes, lettuce, rice, and strawberries, which have no genetically engineered (GE) varieties on the market. But one GE crop, cotton, is already being planted here on a massive scale, and new GE food crops could be grown in California as soon as 2004.

The stakes could hardly be higher for California, where agricultural production amounts to a $26 billion-a-year industry, more than the next two states combined. Farmers in states like Iowa and Nebraska confronted a biotech worst-case scenario this summer when experimental drug-producing crops escaped their fields. Small mistakes and freak weather led to the potential contamination of 550 truckloads of soybeans with corn engineered to produce a pig vaccine, according to a December Washington Post article. The soybeans had to be destroyed, and Prodigene, Inc., the corn?s developer, will pay $3.25 million in fines and restitution.

And, as Terrain has been reporting for over a year, organic farmers from Iowa to Saskatchewan are finding it more and more difficult to get non-GE seed. "The hard lessons learned from the Midwest and Canada and Argentina are that you cannot control genetically engineered crops once they are released," said Ellen Hickey, with the Pesticide Action Network in San Francisco. Two kinds of genetically altered herbicide-tolerant rice, from Monsanto and Aventis, are the major food crops closest to commercialization for California farmers. "It could be as soon as the next growing season in 2003, or it could be 2004," said Hickey.

For organic rice farmer Bryce Lundberg, whose family's farm sits about 80 miles north of Sacramento, a rice control bill passed by the legislature in 2000 holds out some hope that California rice farmers can avoid the plight of farmers in the Midwest and the Canadian plains. "The biggest protection we have in California is the Rice Seed Certification Act of 2000," Lundberg told Terrain. It requires all varieties of rice in California to be identified and classified, and those that might taint a neighbor's crop are regulated by the state Rice Commission. For the 3,200-acre Lundberg operation, which grows over a dozen kinds of rice, from arborio to black, that law imposes heavy restrictions to keep these specialty rices from contaminating neighbors fields red rice intermixed with white can wreak havoc on a crop.

Special rice varieties are kept in isolated warehouses and all seeding is done from the ground, rather than by plane as many California farms do. "We're probably going to be the most regulated rice company in California until the biotech companies come in," he said. "We fully accept that, because we want to see the biotech varieties regulated." The irony of organic rice's being isolated just like Roundup Ready rice is not lost on Lundberg, but the precedent is important in a state where most conventional rice fields are seeded by marginally accurate low-flying airplanes. "We're on record with the Rice Commission that we want a mile from where they're producing those [GE] varieties to where we're planting organic varieties," Lundberg said. Pesticide Action Network, Greenpeace, the Organic Consumers Association, and other groups are launching a campaign to push even further: no new GE food crops in California.

For Pesticide Action Network's Hickey, a mile between GE and organics is not nearly enough to avoid contamination. "We are the number one fruit and vegetable producer in the country, we are the number one organic fruit and vegetable producer, and we have a choice to make," she said. "We will either go down the road of genetic engineering or we go down the road of sustainable agriculture. You cannot do both." A Stitch Too Late But it may already be too late for cotton, the state's second largest crop in acreage, after hay and alfalfa. About a third of California's cotton consisted of GE varieties in 2002, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

That amounts to nearly 230,000 acres. Consumer and activist outcry over GE cotton in California and elsewhere has been almost nonexistent at least in part because cotton isn't considered a food crop. "With the food crops, especially fresh foods, consumers will be much more concerned," says Rebecca Spector with the Center for Food Safety. "Cottonseed oil does end up in food, but it's very hard to make that connection." That's just the kind of connection that the advocacy group Organic Consumers Association (OCA) wants people to make when they're buying things like mass-produced cookies and other baked goods, which often contain cottonseed oil. "By weight, two-thirds of the cotton crop either ends up in food or gets fed to animals," said Simon Harris, OCAs California campaign coordinator.

OCA is launching a campaign this spring to raise public awareness of the risks of genetically modified cotton, along with pesticide use in conventional cotton farming and the sweatshop labor practices that pervade the garment industry. According to Ron Vargas, a University of California Extension cotton farm advisor in Madera County, GE cottonseed gets mixed with conventional seed and sold mostly as feed. "Most of that goes to the dairy industry," Vargas said. California's dairy industry is the largest in the country, bringing in $4.6 billion in 2001. Vargas supports careful use of GE cotton, and so far he has seen none of the problems of contamination that have occurred in the Midwest with corn and soy.

But weed resistance is a potential problem. The bulk of GE cotton in California is herbicide tolerant resistant to either Monsanto's Roundup (glyphosate) or to Bayer CropScience's Butril (bromoxinyl). According to data from the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, a Washington, DC-based think tank that supports biotechnology, the percentage of all California cotton acreage treated with Roundup more than doubled to 34% between 1998 and 2000. Bromoxinyl use went from nothing in 1998 to 9% of the state?s cotton acreage, all in areas planted with the resistant cotton. "We have cautioned growers not to get into a situation where they?re relying solely on one herbicide," Vargas told Terrain. "You will develop resistance, it's not a question of if." For info on the campaign to block new GE crops in California: (415) 981-6205 ext. 393. For info on OCA's cotton campaign, visit www.organicconsumers.org/clothes or call (415) 384-0623. Know What You Grow One of the biggest problems with genetically engineered crops has been contamination ? when GE crops get mixed with non-GE crops or wild relatives. This can happen in a few ways. Pollen from one plant, like the blossoming cotton plant shown here, can fertilize a plant of a different variety, whether via insect or wind. This is called pollen drift. Fields can also get contaminated by seeds blown off passing trucks.

After harvest, crops may also get mixed with GE varieties in processing. Contamination can force farmers to lose their organic certification, since current organic standards allow no GE content. It can also keep farmers from selling their crops overseas in countries that limit GE crop imports. Even worse, as in the famous case of Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser, biotech corporations can sue farmers for inadvertently ?stealing? intellectual property (the DNA of the contaminated plants). Perhaps the most serious problem is the danger of contamination of both non-GE seed stocks, the source of future harvests, and wild food crop relatives, which provide wells of genetic diversity for breeders. In either case, the long history of selection, by nature and humans, suddenly has a new, unknown, possibly permanent addition.

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