The Farmer Who Stopped Planting GMO Crops

Photo credit:  Shutterstock

by s.e. smith

You might think this is the time of year when things are calm on the farm, but just the opposite is true. While the fields are quiet and the farming equipment is quietly tucked away in the barn, it’s time to select the crops for next year and determine what’s being planted where.

Choosing crops, however, isn’t just about deciding to grow carrots, peas or corn (or, more accurately, corn, wheat, or soy), but what kind of any given crop a farmer wants to produce: sweet corn vs. high-starch corn, for example, depending on what’s likely to sell best in the coming year. Furthermore, the farmer needs to make another critical decision: genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or non-GMOs?

Photo credit:  Shutterstock

Photo credit: Shutterstock

For some farmers, it’s an easy choice. Some are actively trying to avoid GMO crops to obtain specialty certifications and the premium price that comes with them, while others may be seeking to produce crops more sustainably and ethically. Others prefer GMO crops for a variety of reasons, including perceived ease of harvesting, specific desired traits and contracts with seed companies.

There’s a serious drawback to growing with GMO seeds, though: They tend to be extremely costly. Biotechnology companies need to recoup their research and development costs, which requires high prices for seed and related specialty products such as specially formulated herbicides and pesticides. Farmers who pay these premiums can get locked into a merry-go-round with the biotech company, finding themselves trapped with GMO crops or reluctant to change.

That was certainly the case with Chris Huegerich, a farmer in Iowa who started out growing with GMO seeds because his father had embraced the technology and didn’t see any other way to grow. Initially, the crops performed extremely well, but in recent years, Huegerich had noticed a decline in yields and performance as pests and weeds became resistant. So he decided to run an experiment, planting part of his fields last year with conventional seeds. He immediately noticed a difference: they were cheaper to buy and cheaper to grow, and the yield was higher, too. In 2013, he repeated the experiment, converting an even higher percentage of his acreage to non-GMO planting, and he was similarly pleased by the result.

Considerable consumer pressure already has played a significant role in attitudes about GMO crops. As more and more consumers demand food labeling and specifically seek out GMO-free products, companies in turn are asking their supplying farmers to consider planting with conventional seeds. This is combined with a growing realization that GMO crops may not be as miraculous as previously believed when it comes to pest resistance and pairing with herbicides for weed control is leading some farmers to do the same thing Huegerich did, questioning the value of GMOs and giving conventional seeds a go.

One of the things that’s particularly interesting about these cases is that the farmers involved are not necessarily pushing for organic certification or even aiming for consumers who prefer GMO-free products. They’re just finding that non-GMOs work better for their needs, illustrating that sometimes, a revolution can come from a surprising corner.

If farmers continue to turn away from GMOs, biotech companies will have to scramble even harder to come up with new products and persuasive sales techniques. And even that may not be enough. In this case, a persuasive economic argument for working with non-GMO crops is emerging from multiple perspectives—those of consumers and farmers alike—and it may prove to be a tipping point for the industry.

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Have a Happy (Non-GMO) Thanksgiving

nogmoposterfi

Looking to keep genetically modified organisms (GMO) out of your grocery cart and off your Thanksgiving table?

This graphic, from the Non-GMO Project, shows which common Thanksgiving menu items are at risk for being genetically modified and how to find easy alternatives.

Non-GMO-Thanksgiving-2013

Visit EcoWatch’s GMO page for more related news on this topic.

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Can Genetically Modified Foods Trigger Gluten Sensitivity?

gmocorn

A new report links genetically modified organisms (GMOs) with gluten-related disorders and suggests GMOs might be an important environmental trigger for gluten sensitivity, estimated to affect as many as 18 million Americans.

The report, released by the Institute for Responsible Technology (IRT), cites U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) records, medical journal reviews and international research. The authors say the data link GMOs to five conditions that either may trigger or exacerbate gluten-related disorders, including celiac disease, a serious autoimmune disorder:

Intestinal permeability
Imbalanced gut bacteria
Immune activation and allergic response
Impaired digestion
Damage to the intestinal wall

gmocorn

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Although wheat has been hybridized over the years, it is not a GMO, which can only be created by a laboratory process that inserts genetic material into plant DNA. Nine GMO food crops currently are being grown for commercial use: soy, corn, cotton (oil), canola (oil), sugar from sugar beets, zucchini, yellow squash, Hawaiian papaya and alfalfa. In the U.S., GMOs are in as much as 80 percent of conventional processed food, says the Non-GMO Project.

Most GMOs are engineered to tolerate a weed killer called glyphosate and sold under the brand name Roundup. The crops contain high levels of this toxin at harvest. Corn and cotton varieties also are engineered to produce an insecticide called Bt-toxin. The report focuses primarily on the effects of these two toxins.

Glyphosate is a patented antibiotic that destroys beneficial gut bacteria. An imbalance of gut flora commonly accompanies celiac disease and other gluten-related disorders, Stephanie Seneff, a senior research scientist at MIT, said in the IRT media release.

Bt-toxin in corn is designed to puncture holes in insect cells, but studies show it does the same in human cells, IRT executive director Jeffrey Smith said in the release. Smith said Bt-toxin may be linked to leaky gut, which physicians consistently see in gluten-sensitive patients.

Dr. Emily Linder offered support for the report’s findings. When she removed GMOs as part of the treatment for her patients with gluten sensitivity, she finds her patients recover faster and more completely.

“I believe that GMOs in our diet contribute to the rise in gluten-sensitivity in the U.S. population,” Linder said in the release.

The best way to avoid GMOs is to purchase certified organic or Non- GMO Project verified products. 

The markets for both gluten-free products and non-GMO products are expanding. Gluten-free sales are expected to exceed $5 billion by 2015 and Non-GMO Project Verified sales went from $0 to more than $3.5 billion in the last three years.

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Hawaii’s Big Island Bans GMO Crops and Biotech Companies

Photo credit: GMO Free Hawaii Island

The Big Island of Hawaii has a new law that bans biotech companies, as well as all open-air growing of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The bill exempts papayas and other GMO crops currently being cultivated and includes fines of $1,000 a day for violators.

Photo credit: GMO Free Hawaii Island

Photo credit: GMO Free Hawaii Island

Mayor Billy Kenoi hasn’t indicated his stance on the bill, but he has 10 days to veto it. The county council could override a veto with a vote from six members.

“WOOHOO! WE DID IT!” read the Facebook page of GMO Free Hawaii Island. “We ask for your continued support on the following two items: Write a letter to thank our council members for protecting the health of our community and Hawaii’s agricultural lands, and encourage Mayor Billy Kenoi to sign Bill 113 into law.”

Supporters of the measure filled the council chambers at the West Hawaii Civic Center with applause after the vote late Tuesday, according to the Hawaii Tribune-Herald.

“We’re stoked. We’re relieved,” resident Blake Watson told the newspaper. “This is a great first step.”

“We are at a juncture,” Councilwoman Margaret Wille, who introduced the bill, told Honolulu Civil Beat. “Do we move forward in the direction of the agro-chemical monoculture model of agriculture, or do we move toward eco-friendly, diversified farming?

At least two farmers’ groups supported the measure—the Hawaii Farmers Union United, whose focus is on family farms, and the Kona Coffee Farmers Association.

Farmers supporting the bill said they fear cross-pollination between modified and non-modified crops, which they say can hurt or even close their markets.

Papayas were exempted in the Big Island bill because most of the 200 papaya plantations in Hawaii are planted with genetically engineered trees. A team of scientists modified the DNA of the papaya in the 1990s to withstand a devastating ringspot virus.

Large biotech companies like Syngenta, Monsanto, Pioneer, Dow and BASF have long been experimenting with GMO crops and seeds in Hawaii. They have farms on the islands of Oahu, Kauai and Molokai, but they’ve never operated on Hawaii’s Big Island.

The world’s biotech giants have set up shop in Hawaii in recent years, attracted by year-round growing conditions and an ecosystem favorable for testing and growing produce such as seed corn. The biotechnology industry has all but completely supplanted the sugar cane and pineapple industries that used to dominate the Hawaiian landscape.

The Big Island bill comes just days after Kauai County Council overrode a mayoral veto on a bill that mandates disclosure of GMO crops.

Anne Lopez, spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office, said earlier this fall that the office has no plans to weigh in on the Big Island’s proposed ban or challenge it if it’s adopted.

“We have not analyzed it to come up with a legal opinion,” she said.

In 2008, the county adopted a ban on GMO coffee and taro that has not been legally challenged.

Watch this interview with Councilwoman Wile from Big Island Video News:

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