Portland, Oregon in February may not rank among the top ten holiday destinations – it is one of the wet months and in the Pacific Northwest that can be very wet. But with its picturesque bridges, one of the world’s largest book shops, great coffee wherever you go and people who queue for ice cream (the salted caramel is divine), outside and in the rain – what’s not to like. And then there is Organicology, the by now annual conference and get-together of organic farmers, growers, policy makers, traders, suppliers. ‘Cross pollination’ is the tongue in cheek motto because cross pollination from GM varieties is one of the biggest problems organic farmers face. Though Matthew Dillon, the outspoken co-founder of the Organic Seed Alliance, put things into perspective by recalling the poverty and desperation in his home state of Nebraska during the farming crisis of the 1990s – before GMOs entered the picture. But: ‘Even if we got rid of all GMOs we still wouldn’t have a sustainable food future’, Dillon said. Instead of spending millions of dollars on GM labelling initiatives the organic movement should spend the money on research: improving soil fertility, benefits of different crop rotations, seed breeding for drought and/or flood tolerance as well as disease resistance. ‘We need to share knowledge and frustration’, Dillon said ‘and let’s find solutions’.
And yet, fighting the GMO lobby in the courts may be the only option for organic growers in Oregon. Voters in two districts in southern Oregon have passed measures banning the use of GMOs which are not being enforced because of legal challenges. The state governor convened a task force to look into the possibility of 'coexistence' between the organic and the GMO industry.
Frank Morton is a very vocal and well known organic vegetable and seed grower who served in the task force and came away with the certainty that coexistence is not possible because the GMO industry does not even acknowledge the problem. ‘Cross pollination contamination happens’, says Morton, but its impact varies: For farmers growing GMOs there is no damage from organic farmers. Organic sweet corn pollen in a field of GMO corn does no damage, but GMO field corn pollen in organic sweet corn causes a huge loss. And it puts organic farmers in a total quandary: If they admit that their crop is contaminated they lose the trust of the organic customers, if they don’t admit it they can’t even attempt to get compensation.
And it gets worse. According to Frank Morton a breeder has created (by crossing) a sweet corn variety which contains some popcorn genes. These genes prevent the plant from being pollinated by GM (ethanol and feed corn) varieties. The ‘immunised’ sweet corn was patented and the patent sold to the agrochemical company Syngenta. Syngenta licenced it to a seed company which is now offering ‘contamination proof’ F1 hybrid sweet corn seeds to organic farmers. So now GM lobbyists tell organic farmers that they can prevent contamination by growing ‘immunized’ hybrids. ‘It’s like someone with a dangerous dog who instead of putting it on a leash tells his neighbours to keep their doors closed’, sighs an exasperated Frank Morton.
One of the people he works with closely is George Kimbrell, a lawyer with the Center For Food Safety who has represented numerous organic farmers in court. ‘The statutes don’t cater for modern agriculture’ says Kimbrell, ‘we have 1960s laws for 21st century problems.’ But progress is being made, he says, and language plays a big part. The legal teams of Big Ag spoke of an ‘advantageous presence’ when they were actually talking about GMOs that had contaminated and organic field, he remembers. That only changed when a California court in its ruling talked about ‘transgenic contamination’ and the Supreme Court in 2010 finally enshrined the term ’contamination’ and that, says Kimbrell, is a huge change. 2015 will be a big year for legal decisions on GMOS: There is the GMO ban in southern Oregon and a motion for a moratorium on planting GMOs in parts of Hawaii, both are being challenged in court, then there is the labelling issue, several trade organisations are suing the state of Vermont over GM labelling requirements and a bill sponsored by a Republican Congressman from Kansas, Mike Pompeo, aims to block food labelling on the‚ federal level. His bill would make GMO labelling an issue to be decided in Washington – fighting labelling initiatives in 30 different states has become very costly to Big Ag companies.
Frank Morton would just like to get on with growing organic vegetables and breeding some new, exciting varieties. And for that he’d like the growing of GMOs to be regulated by the legal equivalent of an old fashioned farm fence which has to be horse high, bull strong and pig tight.