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GMOs in Agricultural Inputs Pose Risks to Organic Farms

With the spread of genetically modified crops and agricultural products, many agricultural inputs, including organic, are at risk from GMO contamination. Organic and non-GMO producers need to be aware that animal feed, seed, and manufactured agricultural products may have been derived from or mixed with GMOs and must take steps to avoid or minimize the risk of contamination.

Feed used in organic meat, dairy, and poultry production must be from organic, non-GM sources, according to the US National Organic Program
(NOP). However, organic feed is at-risk to GMO contamination through commingling in storage facilities or distribution channels, from contaminated farm machinery, and through cross-pollination of crops. The likelihood of GMO contaminated feed is high because GM corn and soy are widely used as animal feed. Billy Hunter, an independent organic inspector based in Iowa, says corn is so highly susceptible to pollen drift that he estimates that "25 percent or more of organic feed corn available is GMO contaminated-even that used by the major organic dairy producers-and about 6% of organic and conventional soybean feed also contains GMOs."

Mary-Howell Martens, an organic farmer and feed mill operator supplying threefourths of the dairy farms in New York state, says that most of the cross-pollination of non- GM crops comes from nearby GM fields and, in the case of corn, occurs in the first 18 rows of the crop. Since NOP standards don't specify a barrier between GM and non-GM crops, producers routinely combine the first few crop rows and treat it as conventional to minimize the effects of GMO contamination.

Martens says cross-pollination is a real threat to the integrity of non-GM and organic seed and feed, but sees an even bigger problem. "Pollen drift gets all the press, but the biggest risk is planting seed contaminated through accidental mixing in machinery, particularly hiring custom combining, which a lot of people do because they can't afford combines," she says. She adds, "Farmers also need to look in their truck boxes and under their tarps and clean that out." GM manufactured inputs Another GMO challenge for non-GMO and organic farmers is agricultural inputs. Many fertilizers, inoculants, microbial inputs, biocontrol products, and supplements may contain GMOs or their derivatives.


Chick Gardiner, California Organic Fertilizers, Inc. (COFI) says there is a risk of GMO contamination of fertilizers, since many fertilizers are plant-based and may be derived from GM corn or soybeans. Even so, he says organic certifiers don't consider GMO contaminated fertilizers a risk because GM material breaks down in the soil and doesn't pose a threat to organic crops.

Still, Gardiner says COFI makes it a priority to buy non- GM raw materials for their fertilizers. "We get a letter of guarantee from our suppliers that there are no GMO products within any of the raw materials that we use." Gardiner says he thinks CFOI has been successful in keeping GMOs out of its organic fertilizers. As far as GM silage inoculants goes, Hunter says he isn't aware of any and thinks no one would use them "because the present silage inoculants work well and there wouldn't be any economic advantage to use GM inoculants."

 Likewise, Martens says there are GM rhizobium inoculants on the market that aren't used very much. Shane Wolf, director of operations, Advanced Microbial Solutions, says there are GM microbial soil products available, but AMS avoids the problem by growing its own product in its labs, strictly from non- GMO sources. Wolf says he fully expects business to grow on the non-GMO side. "We're finding that more and more growers are becoming organically certified or want to use a more environmentally friendly approach to farming." Biocontrol products GM biocontrol products, which are bacteria and fungi to control plant pests and disease, can be a problem for the unwary producer.

Martens says she knows of a good biocontrol product that turns on an apple tree's defenses against fungus, but the cheapest method the company can find to produce it is through fermentation of a GM bacterium. Hunter says Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) pesticides are allowed in organic agriculture, but farmers should be aware that there are several GM Bt pesticides sold. There are also other GM bacterial and fungi products on the market, such as Pseudomonas fluorescens and Trichoderma viride.

Martens says there are many good probiotics, which are live bacteria used in agriculture as feed supplements, for sale that are not GM. She recommends that producers buy probiotics from companies that are committed to organic production. "Make sure that any products being used as animal feed come from responsible suppliers that truly know organic standards and are trying to make products that won't get farmers in trouble," she says. Martens adds that organic producers really benefit from working with a "response, farmer-friendly certifier who understands the kinds of questions farmers need answered."

To control GMOs in inputs, Martens emphasizes that farmers establish a GMO risk management plan with avoidance strategies. "Look at the seed supply and find out where it's coming from. Look at the pollen drift risk and plan a crop rotation accordingly to avoid planting next to their neighbor's Bt corn. Look at the equipment use and risks and make a plan to reduce them. Then develop a plan on paper for every single piece (of land), and see the risk and then plan accordingly," she says.