A Grassroots Battle over Biotech Farming / Local initiatives target genetic engineering

By Robert J. Mullins

When voters in the Northern California county of Mendocino passed an initiative this spring banning the cultivation of genetically engineered crops, there were celebrations 3,000 miles away in Vermont.

That same day, March 2, nine town councils in Vermont passed resolutions calling for a state moratorium on genetically engineered farming, bringing to 79 the number of townships there that have taken such a stand.

“We were thrilled in Vermont after the Mendocino County vote passed the same day as our town vote. This is a huge boost for our campaign,” said Amy Shollenberger, an organizer of GE-Free Vermont, an advocacy group opposed to genetically engineered crops.

On the heels of these successes, and buoyed by widespread disapproval of genetically modified foods in Europe, municipalities around the U.S. are presenting their own versions of the ban to voters this November.

But activists may be trying to close the barn door after the horses have already fled. Many food crops worldwide are already being grown with genetically modified seed, and the agribusiness lobby, perhaps caught off guard by the Mendocino vote, is refocusing its well-funded lobbying machine.

Grassroots battle

In genetically modified or genetically engineered agriculture, seeds from crops like corn, soybean and cotton are designed to have traits such as resistance to pesticides, herbicides or spoilage.

Opponents say GM plants contaminate organic crops, pose potential health risks to consumers and will enable agribusiness to plow over the family farm.

Worldwide, seven million farmers in 18 countries plant GM seeds. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 45 percent of the corn planted in the U.S. in 2004 was GMO, along with 76 percent of upland cotton and 85 percent of all soybeans.

Failing to win federal legislation, the U.S. anti-GM lobby has settled for state- and county-level campaigns.

Inspired by the success of the ban in Mendocino, activists in four other California counties — Butte, Humboldt, Marin and San Luis Obispo — are putting similar initiatives before their voters Nov. 2.

An anti-GM campaign also is building in Hawaii, where GM papaya has been planted since 1998.

North Dakota advocates planned to put a referendum before voters in November to ban growth of genetically modified hard red winter wheat in their state, but withdrew the proposal when Monsanto, the St. Louis-based agribusiness giant, canceled plans to test the wheat in the state.

“We think these are isolated incidents,” said Michelle Gorman, director of regulatory relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation in Washington, D.C.

Corporations dismiss anti-GM groups as a small number of zealots, and say genetically modified farming is more efficient than organic because fewer crops are lost to weeds and pests. This, they say, will expand export markets and feed more people worldwide.

The Bush administration, a supporter of the biotech industry, is promoting GM exports to African countries, arguing that the technology can produce more food to fight famine there.

“Fear making tactics”

On its Web site, CropLife America, an agribusiness trade group, described the ban in Mendocino County as a “direct reflection of the fear making tactics used by [advocates] to frighten voters into rejecting this technology.” (PDF)

In August, the American Farm Bureau Federation’s president, Bob Stallman, told a group of farmers in Butte County that “[l]ocal biotech bans threaten agricultural production one county at a time.”

But Shollenberger in Vermont says the anti-genetic engineering campaign wants to save the family farm and consumer health.

“They try to say, ‘This is just a group of radicals,’ but we’re not a group of radicals. This is a national farm movement,” she said.

The Vermont township resolutions ask state lawmakers to pass a moratorium on GM farming until public health questions can be answered.

The anti-GM lobby also supports mandatory labeling of food products made with genetically modified organisms, and protection from liability for farmers if their GM crops sicken consumers.

In an online essay, Jeffrey Smith, a noted anti-GM activist, wrote that people who eat modified foods may be at risk for allergic reactions and gene transfers that might have unpredictable long-term results.

Safety studies conducted by the biotech industry are often dismissed by critics as superficial, he wrote, adding that while the Food and Drug Administration has approved GM foods, some dissenting FDA scientists have called for more long term studies.

The Western Organization of Resource Councils, representing farmers in Montana and other plains states, also called in late September for further investigation of the impact on consumers of modified crops.

“There is no independent safety testing done on these crops before they are put on the market,” said Wayne Fisher, a wheat farmer from Dickinson, N.D. “The result is we have almost no science to tell us if [GM] crops are safe or not.”

Agribusinesses counter that the biotech farming industry is heavily regulated by the FDA, the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Seed patents

Opponents are also concerned about the contamination of non-GM crops.

An EPA study released in September showed that pollen from genetically altered bentgrass drifted as far as 13 miles from test fields in Oregon.

Besides contaminating non-biotech crops — which means they can’t be marketed as GM-free and may carry the same health risks as modified crops — the cross-pollination also makes farmers liable for violating seed makers patents.

In May, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser violated Monsanto’s patent for genetically modified canola seed, which he said drifted over from a neighbor’s fields.

In the U.S., farmers sued by seed growers have settled rather than fight the giant corporations, said Shollenberger.

Monsanto uses forensic molecular biologists to identify its genetic material in other crops, and has taken legal action against about 300 farmers for violating its patents, according to the Online Learning Center Web site.

“Periodically, we are forced to do that,” said Monsanto spokeswoman Lori Fisher, but did not provide further details on the lawsuits.

As seed suppliers like Monsanto, Pioneer, DuPont and others “corner the market,” Shollenberger said, non-GM farmers may have to buy genetically altered seed whether they want to or not.

“It is becoming increasingly difficult for farmers who grow certain crops to get GM-free varieties,” she said. “Soybeans are the clearest example. All across the U.S., farmers are choosing to plant GM soybeans because they can’t get conventional non-GM varieties.”

“Oblivious” to the debate

Local initiatives like Mendocino County’s seem unlikely to stop biotech’s momentum.

“I do not think this is the start of a general backlash in the U.S.,” said Fred Buttel, a rural sociologist at the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Most Americans are “oblivious” to the debate, Buttel said, and are unaware that about 75 percent of processed foods already have some GM content.

The Mendocino County initiative passed because there is no GM-type farming going on there anyway, and the initiative was only designed to keep it out, he said.

“The numbers of opponents are small, but they are well educated and skilled and can have impacts on public policy,” Buttel said. “But these impacts are unlikely to include more bans like that in Mendocino.”

Even some anti-GMO activists acknowledge their limitations.

Els Cooperrider, organizer of the Mendocino campaign and co-owner of an organic brewery and restaurant in Ukiah, said they ran their campaign quietly so as to avoid drawing the attention of agribusiness lobbyists.

“We were very well organized. The industry didn’t have time to organize,” she said.

Even with a late start, however, the industry plowed an estimated $620,000 into TV ads and other efforts to defeat the Mendocino initiative.

The campaign was organized by CropLife America, whose representatives did not return calls seeking comment.

Spending only about $100,000, advocates of the ban prevailed with 57 percent of the vote.

But that may not ensure victory elsewhere, Cooperrider admits.

“We had the element of surprise,” she said. “It’s gone now. The industry knows how we did it.”

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