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Farmers urged to learn about GMOs before planting 2005 crops: GMOs are legal minefield for both growers and their neighbors

Contact Information
David Moeller ­ Farmers’ Legal Action Group (FLAG) 651/223-5400
Michael Sligh - Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA (RAFI-USA) 919/542-1396

Pittsboro, N.C. (November 19, 2004) ­ The commercial production of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, has created a legal minefield for American farmers and requires that farmers be particularly sure footed, says Farmers’ Guide to GMOs, just released by the Farmers’ Legal Action Group (FLAG) and Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA (RAFI-USA). 

Co-author and attorney David R. Moeller of FLAG says that whether farmers grow GMOs, conventional seeds, or are certified organic, the use of GMOs in commercial agriculture can affect operations and have costly legal ramifications.

“After almost a decade of commercial production, we have reached that point,” Moeller said, “where every farmer has a stake and has to be fully aware of the legal ramifications. No farmer should buy seed for next season without having a grasp of the information contained in this Guide.”

Co-author Michael Sligh of RAFI, said, “The problems GMOs are creating for farmers are getting increasingly complex. We at RAFI felt it was time to invest in a collaborative effort to inform all farmers of the risks and legal liabilities involved and help them protect their self interests.” Copies of the Farmers’ Guide to GMOs, the first comprehensive look at the subject, are available free at www.flaginc.org and www.rafiusa.org.

GMO contamination is one of the primary GMO-related problems. “In a world of widespread production of GMO crops, what one farmer plants may seriously affect all of his neighbors' crops. Certain crops, such as corn and canola, cross-pollinate, causing genetic material to migrate,” Moeller said. “Farmers may be unable to market contaminated non-GMO crops, and GMO growers may face liability for unintentional contamination of their neighbors’ crops.”

GMO development and marketing is concentrated in a few biotechnology companies ­ Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta and Aventis ­ who control most of the GMO technology and the resulting seed and chemical markets. GMOs are regulated by three federal agencies. USDA regulates pre-release testing and procedures, including field trials. EPA regulates pesticides contained within GMOs and sets tolerance levels for pesticides that end up as residues in foods. FDA has regulatory authority over food produced from GMOs, claiming that it is “generally recognized as safe.”

Moeller said farmers assume significant obligations and legal liabilities when they sign GMO contracts. “Common obligations include how and where to plant, including creating ‘refuges’ of non pest-resistant varieties; giving up the right to save seed; opening up their fields and all records, including filings usually subject to the Privacy Act, to inspections; and agreeing to specified remedies if the farmer violates the agreement.”

In most cases saving seed ­ an age-old practice among farmers ­ is prohibited as to GMOs, and there are stiff penalties for doing so. A recent U.S. Supreme Court case limited a statutory seed-saving exemption, and a Canadian case ruled that a farmer could not save seed from a crop contaminated with GMO technology. “Farmers may not save seed containing ‘patented’ genes resulting from accidental cross pollination from a neighboring GMO group or any other source,” Sligh said.

Farmers who sign a technology agreement have little recourse if the company asks to inspect their fields. Where there is no contract, farmers should seek legal counsel and require the company to show cause. In every case when samples are demanded, farmers should make sure an identical independent sample is taken and analyzed, Moeller said.

Selection of uncontaminated seeds, planting at a distance from GMO crops, creating buffer areas, and meticulous cleaning of equipment and storage areas are all important. Moeller counsels farmers to avoid making broad statements of non-GMO warranty and to emphasize efforts made to prevent contamination beginning, of course, with the statement that seed have been certified GMO free. Organic farmers risk losing their certification through GMO contamination.

Recent research on the costs and benefits of GMOs surprisingly shows that pesticide use has increased on herbicide tolerant crops. Sligh says this is due primarily to farmers’ reliance on a single herbicide ­ glyphosate ­ that must be sprayed in increasing amounts to keep up with the shift in weed populations toward more difficult to control species and the development of resistance to certain weeds.

FLAG is a nonprofit law center dedicated to providing legal services to family farmers and their rural communities to help keep family farmers on the land. RAFI-USA is dedicated to community, equity, and diversity in agriculture. This Farmers' Guide to GMOs is a joint project of FLAG and RAFI-USA with financial support from the Nathan Cummings Foundation and The John Merck Fund, and the Lawson Valentine Foundation.

Additional information, as well as the full text of the Guide, is available at or http://www.flaginc.org .