The Genetic Resistance
by David Kupfer

From Mendocino, California to Montpelier, Vermont, communities are passing measures to say no to the contamination of the food supply with genetically engineered (GE) seeds and crops. Resistance to the spread of GE food crops is mounting around the country as evidence rolls in about the dangers behind GE foods and the fact that American diets have already been significantly contaminated.

The biotech industry and US government maintain that genetic engineering is a benign tool that can be used to decrease the use of herbicides and pesticides, and to improve crop yields.

Skeptics say the technology is too young for anyone to be sure of its safety, so its adoption should be slowed and monitored more closely. Evidence shows that GE foods increase the likelihood that new food allergens and toxins will be introduced into our food supply. GE crops often boost pesticide use, harming beneficial insects, earthworms, and birds. Moreover, GE crops threaten both conventional and organic farmers as a result of genetic contamination.

"Farmers in the US have lost billions in markets because of contaminated food exports and an unwillingness of foreign buyers to purchase GE food," says Mark Schapiro, award-winning reporter with the Center for Investigative Journalism. "Those billions in lost sales translate to payouts to different farmers who make up that shortfall in agricultural subsidies from the USDA. We taxpayers are in essence subsidizing the biotech industry."

The first biotech crop went to market in 1994. Today, 167 million acres worldwide are planted in biotech crops, chiefly corn, cotton, soybeans, and canola engineered to produce their own insecticides or withstand treatment by herbicides. The US is the world's top biotech crop producer.

Signaling a turning point in the effort to halt the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the US, the citizens of California's Mendocino County approved a countywide measure March 2 that prohibits the "propagation, cultivation, raising and growing of genetically modified organisms." The 56.34 percent of voters in Mendocino County who voted to ban GMOs in the county have shaken the establishment far beyond their small north coast community.

CropLife America--a national lobbying group representing agribusiness giants like Monsanto, DuPont, and Dow--pumped nearly $700,000 into the campaign to defeat the initiative. The proponents of Measure H spent less than $100,000, raised mostly in small local contributions.

"This victory means the people of Mendocino County saw through the bullying of multibillion dollar corporations that were trying to undermine the democratic process. These corporations underestimated our savvy citizenry," said Els Cooperrider, a retired medical scientist, the community leader who spearheaded Measure H, and co-owner of the certified all-organic Ukiah Brewery and Restaurant.

"Mendocino County is the first GMO-free county in the nation," says local vintner Katrina Frey, co-owner of Frey Winery. "I'm sure this will motivate many other counties nationwide to mount comparable efforts."

The biotech industry is expected to challenge Mendocino's ban on the grounds that it preempts federal regulations. It also may seek to override the ban through state legislation.

Measure H was a grassroots effort in a sparsely populated county that grows no GE crops. However, Mendocino County is home to a number of wineries and vineyards, including Fetzer Vineyards, the largest grower of organic grapes in the nation.

In numerous mailers and radio ads, the corporate-funded opposition argued that the measure was poorly written and would be costly for taxpayers to enforce, requiring the county agricultural commissioner to seek out and destroy genetically modified plants--a potent threat in a county whose largest cash crop is marijuana.

On the other side of the US, Vermont senators voted 28-0 to support the Farmer Protection Act (S.164), a bill to hold biotech corporations liable for unintended contamination of conventional or organic crops by GE plant materials. Seventy-nine Vermont towns have passed measures calling on lawmakers in Montpelier and Washington to enact a moratorium on GMOs, and 10 percent of Vermont's conventional dairy farmers have pledged not to plant the crops.

More than 10 states currently have proposals for legislation against GE crops. Perhaps the most important anti-biotech action is taking shape in the Dakotas, where Monsanto plans to sell wheat that withstands the company's flagship weedkiller, RoundupTM. A proposal to ban GE wheat was defeated in the North Dakota Senate in 2001, but residents and farm groups are pushing a new ballot initiative.

The last year has seen a surge in GE activism across the Hawai'ian Islands, with groups working on legislative initiatives, market campaigns, Right-To-Know efforts focusing on the location of field experiments, and the creation of GE-free zones. Experimental GMO testing has been going on in Hawai'i for over a decade. Hawai'i is home to the highest concentration of experimental plantings of GE crops anywhere in the world.

The biotech industry has its sights set on California, which produces over 350 crops and is currently GE-free, with the exception of cotton grown in the Central Valley. Californians for GE-Free Agriculture is a growing coalition of farm, environmental, and consumer organizations united to prevent GE agriculture in California. The coalition is helping to form groups throughout the state that will help keep California GE-free and organize locally to promote a sustainable food system.

This year, the main thrust of their campaign will be stopping GE rice. In September 2003, the US EPA gave regulatory approval for Bayer's Liberty LinkTM GE rice. Liberty Link rice is engineered to be tolerant to glufosinate, a broad-spectrum herbicide similar to Monsanto's Roundup. Liberty Link rice could be planted as soon as 2005.

Another company, Ventria Bioscience, gained approval March 29 to grow and mill two "pharm" varieties of rice in California on a commercial scale. "Pharm" crops are plants that have been engineered to produce pharmaceutical drugs. Ventria's "pharm" rice is engineered with human genes that produce two proteins--lactoferrin and lysozyme--used to treat iron deficiency, diarrhea, and infections in humans, and for chicken farming.

Many consumers and food companies are concerned that these and other drugs may someday end up in their breakfast cereal. The California Rice Commission's decision on allowing commercial growing of "pharm" rice is expected in the next several months.

Earlier this year, The National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, issued a note of caution urging more attention to methods of preventing GE plants and animals from breeding with their wild relatives.

A landmark report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released in February shows that federal regulations have failed to prevent contamination. The report documents widespread genetic contamination of corn, soy, and canola seed stock in the US. In lab reports commissioned by the UCS, over two-thirds of 36 conventional batches of the three crops were found to contain traces of DNA from GE crop varieties.

If federal rules and farm practices are not tightened, UCS predicts that the US may soon find it impossible to guarantee that any portion of its food supply is free of gene-altered elements, a situation that could seriously disrupt the export of US foods, seeds, and oils.

The 70-page report, "Gone to Seed," recommends that the USDA conduct a thorough assessment of the extent of genetic contamination in the US seed industry, and that reservoirs of pure seed stocks for major crops be set aside as an "insurance policy" against the possibility of GE contamination.

David Kupfer is a frequent contributor to Earth Island Journal.

© Earth Island Journal, Summer 2004