E-mail this article to
yourself or a friend.
Enter address:


As biotech seed debate rages on, organic growers see trouble blowing in the wind

(Thursday, March 18, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Kevin Kelley, Addison County Independent (Vermont): STARKSBORO - On a windy March morning, Eric Clifford watches his herd of 175 Holsteins munching contentedly in a series of open-sided barns with concrete floors and corrugated roofs.

"It's been a struggle these past couple of years," says Clifford, the eighth generation of his family to farm this Starksboro land. He cites the familiar syndrome of mounting debt and stagnant milk prices. In addition, Clifford is worried now about the threat of globalized agriculture, particularly about losing market share to dairy farms in Australia and New Zealand.

Angling for every competitive edge, Clifford has turned to genetically engineered (GE) corn as a cost-effective means of improving the yield of a crop he feeds his cows. The GE seed he plants allows Clifford to apply herbicide early in the growing season without damaging the new shoots. Clifford accepts scientists' assurances that the corn is safe, but he acknowledges the possibility of gene-altered seeds drifting onto the properties of neighbors who have chosen not to cultivate biotech crops.

"It's an issue I'm concerned about," Clifford says. "I don't have a good answer to it."

Ben Gleason has been growing organic grains in his Bridport fields for the past 23 years. His 32 acres planted in wheat and soybeans produce about 40 tons a year - enough, along with a hay crop, for Gleason to earn a living from the land.

Although genetically modified soybeans have been approved for use, Gleason sees no present danger of his organic soy crop becoming contaminated because "no one around here is growing GE soybeans." Besides, soy plants don't wind-pollinate, he points out.

Gleason is more concerned about the impact of GE grasses that might give rise to mutant "superweeds" resistant to herbicides. And he foresees even worse trouble once genetically modified wheat, clover and alfalfa crops gain expected federal clearance in the coming years. Those types of seeds, Gleason says, can be spread easily and widely. That would make it impossible for many Vermont organic farmers to retain their markets and would also corrupt the traditional seed varieties preferred by many conventional farmers.

Addison County farmers sowing GE seeds are generally unaware of the potentially harmful effects on their neighbors, Gleason suggests.

"It's a lack of education. If the dangers were known, it would discourage a lot of people from growing GE crops," he says. "Most farmers I know are concerned with keeping farms in Vermont."

The biotechnology revolution may bring salvation to small farmers and help feed the world's hungry, as its proponents argue, or it may disrupt agricultural ecosystems and devastate the organic food sector, as its opponents warn. What seems indisputable, however, is that increasing reliance on GE seeds will pit Vermont farmer against Vermont farmer, inflaming resentments within a diverse community that has many common interests.

In an interview, Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr defended the use of approved GE seeds in Vermont and suggested that ways can be found to allay the anxieties of organic farmers.

"I appreciate that genetically modified material worries some people the way pesticides worry some people," Kerr said. "But we've learned how to use pesticide with minimal risk, and I'm confident we can use GE with minimal risk."

The goal of zero-risk, however, will remain unreachable, Kerr added.


The Vermont Agency of Agriculture does not intend to issue regulations governing where and how GE seeds are to be planted, Kerr said. The agency is instead developing a set of voluntary guidelines aimed at reducing the risk of GE seeds or pollen spreading to other crops. A key premise, Kerr explained, is that government "should not get in the way of entrepreneurs who are willing to risk their own capital" by investing in approved products and processes.

Under the guidelines, growers of GE crops are encouraged to tell their neighbors about the timing and location of such plantings. It is also recommended that GE seeds be sown at a significant diistance from adjoining properties and that hedgerows or tall annual crops be grown as barriers.

And if accidental contamination does occur, potential damages might have to be paid by the manufacturers of GE seeds - not by the farmers who plant them. That provision is included in a bill recently adopted by the Vermont Senate. The legislation could die in the House, however.

No organic or conventional farms in Addison County are known to have had their corn or soybeans cross-pollinated with GE crops. But such contamination has occurred on at least one Vermont farm, according to the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. VPIRG advocates a state-imposed moratorium on the use of genetically modified seeds.

The group reported in December that of 12 conventional and organic Vermont farms that had corn samples tested at an Illinois laboratory, one organic farm was found to have had its crop contaminated with pollen "from nearby genetically altered corn. Confidentiality agreements prevent VPIRG from disclosing the location of the affected farm, but an analyst with the group revealed that it is not located in Addison County.

No one knows for certain how many Addison County farmers have planted GE seeds. Vermont does not require biotech companies to report such sales on either a statewide or county basis.

One of the best estimates may be that offered by Matthew Ennis, an organizer for Rural Vermont. GE crops have been grown on 20 to 30 of the 100 dairy farms in the county he has visited, Ennis calculates.


A Lincoln resident, Ennis criss-crossed Addison County during the past year, asking farm owners to sign a statement drafted by Rural Vermont in opposition to genetic engineering in agriculture. About 35 conventional farmers signed, as did every one of the half-dozen or so organic dairy producers he spoke with, Ennis reports. But a majority of the milk producers he visited declined to endorse the statement.

Further illustrating the local divisions over this issue, many Addison County residents have expressed support for state actions to regulate or temporarily ban the growing of GE crops. Nine towns in the county are among the 70 around the state that have adopted resolutions calling for such interventions.

Much is at stake economically on both sides of the controversy.

While the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) says it would not withdraw its certification from a farm contaminated with genetically modified organisms, farmers found to be in those circumstances would not be able to sell their affected products as organic. They would thus lose the substantial price advantage that organic products bring.

Because their livelihood could be imperiled through no fault of their own, some organic growers argue that the burden of preventing contamination should rest exclusively with GE growers and seed manufacturers.

Rep. Harvey Smith, a New Haven Republican, dairy farmer and member of the House Agriculture Committee, suggests that the responsibility should probably be shared.

Policies developed both by NOFA and the United States Department of Agriculture make clear, Smith says, that it's up to the grower to follow practices that meet organic standards. At the same time, he adds, "I'm willing to work with organic growers" to help protect their crops.

Smith raises feed for his 70 cows on 300 acres of crop land. He says he intends to plant a variety of GE corn this spring that will help combat quack grass and thereby provide him with substantial savings.

"GE is one more resource farmers can put into their management plans," Smith says. "It might be a pretty valuable one."

Bob Foster agrees that farmers should have the right to apply approved technology that might help them stay in business.

"Mainstream agriculture in this area is very important," says Foster, whose family raises some 500 acres of corn in Middlebury and neighboring towns to support a herd of 340 milking cows. "It provides the state with a tremendous amount of gross income."

Foster Brothers Farm planted GE corn in 2002. He says he avoided problems with organic-farming neighbors by talking with them in advance and working out agreements to plant the seeds well away from their land.

The type of corn he planted has environmental as well as economic benefits, Foster says. In addition to reducing reliance on insecticides, it required less tillage, which can cause soil erosion.

"We're trying to be good stewards, and part of that means using technology that minimizes our impact on the soil," Foster says.

Along with many organic growers in Vermont, NOFA wants the state to put a two-year moratorium on the use of GE products. Legislation of that sort has been introduced, but its chances of enactment are viewed as slim, given the expressed opposition of the governor and of key figures in the Republican-controlled House. Many opponents of a moratorium argue that it would be ruled an unconstitutional interference with interstate commerce. But in response to Congressman Bernie Sanders' request for an advisory opinion, an attorney with the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service in Washington recently suggested that a moratorium in Vermont could withstand a constitutional challenge.

NOFA's Vermont certification administrator John Cleary concedes that advocates of a moratorium are engaged in "a real uphill battle." A major factor, Cleary says, is that "no one wants to do something seen as harmful to conventional dairy farming." And organic farmers themselves are sometimes reluctant to speak out strongly against genetic engineering, Cleary adds. "They're sensitive to standing out in their communities. They don't want to criticize their neighbors."

NOFA does not base its support for a moratorium on contentions that genetically modified crops pose a threat to human or animal health. Federal agricultural and environmental officials say there is no evidence of such dangers. Cleary does point, however, to what he calls "the oops factor" of unforeseen consequences.

NOFA's opposition to the genetic engineering of seeds rests mainly on what it sees as a threat to farmers' right to self-determination. "The real issue is how important do we as a society feel it is for farmers to have control over the crops they produce," Cleary says.

The further engineering of plant traits may eventually resolve the vexed issue of preventing contamination from GE crops. For example, scientists are working to devise GE plants whose flowers die before they can spread pollen. But a recent study by the National Research Council concluded that introduction of such "bio-confinement" techniques is still years away.

In the meantime, debate over the merits and dangers of GE crops is sure to intensify in Addison County and in other parts of rural America.

Source: http://www.addisonindependent.com/GEseedsdebate.html