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Contaminated choices

By Robert Schubert
CropChoice editor

(Friday, Oct. 25, 2002 -- CropChoice commentary) --Monsanto and the rest of the biotechnology and agro-chemical crew are spending $4.5 million to persuade Oregon residents that they should vote down an initiative that would require the labeling of genetically engineered foods in the state.

Among their arguments is the notion that people already have a choice. If they don't want genetically modified corn flakes and soy shakes, they should buy organically grown food. Its production standards disallow the use of transgenic seeds.

People to whom this argument sounds convincing, and even those who opt for organic as a matter of course, should think twice.

Why? Genetically modified crops threaten the survival of safe, sustainable agriculture.

Their continued cultivation, particularly the easy crossing corn and canola, gradually will render fruitless any efforts to keep the transgenic traits out of organic harvests.

The breeze, the birds and the bees aid cross-pollination. Wind and water move seed from field to field. Human and machine errors lead to mixing of seed during processing, distribution and planting. The same is true of grain handling. These are just a few reasons why biotech contamination is happening and will accelerate.

Martin Entz, a professor of Agronomy at the University of Manitoba, attested to this in June 2001 when he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that the "GM canola has, in fact, spread much more rapidly than we thought it would. It's absolutely impossible to control... It's been a great wake-up call about the side effects of these GM technologies."

Nebraska organic farmer David Vetter told me recently: "The contamination concerns me when I look at it here on the farm. There’s not much you can do to defend yourself. If you have increased acreage of this stuff, we’ll see more cross-pollination. But the bigger issue is the seed industry, which has trouble segregating."

One should not forget the StarLink corn fiasco. Iowa farmers planted about 1 percent of this biotech variety, which did not have governmental approval to be in human food. By harvest time, almost half the state's crop registered positive for StarLink, which found its way into taco shells and other corn products.

"Our investigations thus far from the 2000 harvest lead us to believe that virtually all of the seed corn in the United States is contaminated with at least a trace of genetically engineered material, and often more," David Gould, a certifier with North Dakota-based Farm Verified Organics, told me in February of 2001. "Even the organic lots are showing traces of biotech varieties."

Gould added that if certifiers insisted on 0 percent contamination, then "we shouldn't certify any corn as organic." Further, propagating genetically modified crops year after year will lead to the presence of more and more biotech material in organic and conventional varieties. That would mean raising the tolerance levels. In the end, the idea of organic would become a joke.

The fact that the biotech corporations are well along in polluting organic foods with a technology they can't control undercuts their argument in the Oregon labeling debate that people who don't want to eat genetically engineered foods can simply go down the organic aisle. Those consumers increasingly don't have that choice. The biotechnology industry contaminated it.