I know, I know, it's the holiday season and no one wants to think about politics. Nonetheless, the machinery of politics and the machinations of corporations churn relentlessly. If you don't have time to read this right now, fine, but bookmark it for later when you do, because this is terrifically important information about the future of our state's agriculture and our local food system. (BTW, you can tell how important it is when you hear contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm quoting scripture.)
This autumn's special session of the Oregon Legislature was called to deal with urgent budget problems. Unfortunately, the legislature also passed SB 633, a bill that blocks local communities from regulating genetically engineered (GE) crops—the same bill that had been defeated earlier in the regular session (pdf of full text here). It stuck out like a sore thumb and garnered a measure of national attention. Its sole purpose was to sweeten the budget deal for the Republicans. It was a disturbing indicator of how powerful the biotechnology industry is, even in a state where GE crops play a minor to trivial economic role. As a general matter, we have a deep ambivalence toward local governments regulating agriculture as the laws have often been directed against organic gardeners and farmers. Ironically, even when such laws are prohibited, such as in the case of SB 633, it is still skewed against organic growers. The old heads we lose, tails you win game.
Anthony with his flint corn.
Plants that cross pollinate, whether by wind or insects, are vulnerable to contamination by nearby plantings of GE crops of the same type. Last Saturday, at the suggestion of Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed, a reporter contacted us regarding Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack touting the idea of "coexistence" between organic growers and the biotechnology sector. The USDA is in the comment period for rule-making on coexistence, another indicator of the industry's influence. After the market on Sunday, we sent the reporter this quickly drafted response, reedited a bit for clarity.
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When we hear people use the word "coexistence," we hear the language of the Prophet Isaiah 11:26: "The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat …" In life on earth wolves eat sheep and leopards eat goats, and quite happily, at least from the predator's perspective. We agree with Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seeds, the faith-based approach to controlling genetic trespass, cynically named coexistence, isn't reassuring unless the predator is caged, or defanged and declawed.
Bees can carry pollen for miles.
Parts of Oregon have a legal and social structure called "open range." Cattle are allowed to roam without fences and cow hands round them up in the autumn when it comes time to sell them. If you don't want livestock on your property, you have to put up a fence. Ownership is determined by the branding iron not the location of the beast. When you travel in the eastern parts of the state, highway signs advise you that there may be cattle in the road. You hit one, you have to compensate the owner for the dead or injured animal. In the more densely populated areas, that doesn't work; livestock must be fenced.
Up to now, the genetically engineered crops have had their grand romp across the nation with little resistance. Millions of acres in GE corn and soybeans cover the midsection of the U.S. It is the equivalent of open range; the pollen from these crops and the traits it carries can range freely. If your crop acquires a GE trait, even passively because the pollen lands on your crop, you have to pay the company that owns the trait if you want to use that seed. Yes, it is outrageous, and it is the law upheld by the Supreme Court.
Ayers Creek flint corn.
In the Willamette Valley and Rogue Valley with their small area and dense pattern of cropping, open range rules for GE crops are economically destructive to certain sectors of agriculture, and not just the organic growers, also specialty seed growers and crops grown for the export markets. Those agricultural sectors are well established in the state. Oregon is fifth in the nation in terms of number of certified organic farms, and one of the top seed-producing regions in the world. We need the equivalent of a fenced pasture here, in other words, keep your modified genes on your own land.
The inane argument that modified genes are legal doesn't cut it. Cattle and sheep are legal but the state does not sanction our neighbor's sheep trespassing on our land and destroying the value of our crops. In our part of the state, livestock must be fenced, and if one wanders in the road and we hit it or it damages our crops, the owner is liable for damage to our property. Drift from a legal pesticide onto a neighboring farm is likewise trespass if it causes economic damage, even if it is applied according to the label. Unfortunately, in the case of genetic trespass, neither the federal nor the state governments have shown leadership or concern for growers who are put at economic risk.
The next step of the argument is the foundering, hand-waving assertion that pollen is everywhere and no one can control it. This is wrong on its face. Almost every plant species has a mechanism for excluding foreign pollen when it lands on the stigma. That is why you can't cross lettuce with a tomato in classic breeding methodology. If the patent office hadn't granted utility patents on traits in established crops, we doubt we would be at this contentious moment. The industry would have found a way to protect their proprietary traits by preventing their replication in non-GE crops, utilizing one of the many exclusion mechanisms found in nature or maternal inheritance (no modified genes in the pollen). The EPA could have required that pollen from a modified plant be unrecognizable to plants in the same species as a condition of approval. With patent protection, the large corporations exploit the court system instead. The owners of the patent have no incentive to corral their traits, so local governments have no choice but to step into the breach using what authority they can reasonably muster.
Teosinte, ancestor of modern corn.
For every economic crop that is genetically modified, the approving authorities should require that its pollen is unrecognizable to the crop so modified, or that plant is sterile. For example, GE beet pollen should not germinate on non-GE beets. There are many foreign gene exclusion models that occur in nature. Some strains of popcorn have a single gene, GAS, that stops the germination of the pollen tube if is from a different class of corn, and prevents pollination. Some organic seed producers have incorporated this gene into their lines, using classic breeding techniques. In fact, domesticated corn cannot pollinate the wild corn plant, teosinte, which has a similar exclusion mechanism. The industry could also use traits that lead to sterile hybrids.
Just as with fencing livestock in the valley, that burden should fall to the entity profiting from the wandering genes. The companies producing GE seed have the tools and expertise at their disposal to produce seed lines that would not pollute non-GE seed lines with their pollen. But they are not going to do it if they don't have to.
As Frank Morton noted, we produce a great deal of seed on our farm. If our neighbors upwind of us decided to grow GE corn, for example, we would lose that crop and a substantial chunk of income. We have been working on our seed lines for twelve years, adapting them to the climate and soil conditions on our farm. It is incredible corn and if you are in Portland, visit Pine State Biscuits and try their grits. We grow that corn.
Photo of teosinte from Wikipedia.