The dirty secret of organic seeds

GMOs are hard to avoid

From Good Stuff NW Annex by
March 11, 2009

It was shocking, actually. And the person who said it was in a position to know. It was at the recent Organicology conference, during a panel discussion on managing the threats posed by genetically engineered crops.

“The dirty secret of the organic seed industry is that seeds are getting contaminated (with genetically modified organisms or GMOs) and are getting sold to growers,” said Matthew Dillon, director of advocacy for the Organic Seed Alliance. In other words, farmers and gardeners may be unwittingly buying GMO-tainted seeds when they think they’re buying an organic, and thus non-GMO, product.

There are myriad reasons that this happens, from the expense that testing adds to a low-margin crop like seeds to the fact that declaring the presence of GMOs in a seed catalog would make some farmers and gardeners refuse to buy it. “GMOs are an ‘excluded method’ in an organic program,” Dillon said, “It could threaten the farmer’s certification to ‘knowingly’ plant seed with GMO presence.”

These same farmers may be selling their crop to companies (like food processors) that test for GMO presence and so their crop will be unmarketable, he added. Plus there’s the fear, as happened with a canola farmer in Canada named Percy Schmeiser, that Monsanto might sue them for illegally planting the company’s patented genetics.

The protection of organic crops also depends on the active participation of conventional growers. “People who grow commodity crops don’t have a lot of time to do management of their crops and they get sloppy,” said Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed. And the large scale of commodity growers swamps the smaller plantings of most organic growers.

The difficulty is multiplied when organic growers depend on insects and pollen in the environment to grow their crops, since insects might have a range of one to three miles and wind-blown pollen can fly from one-and-a-half to six miles. And in a cramped environment like the Willamette Valley, it means that keeping crops free of contamination becomes next to impossible without strict oversight.

The impact of contamination on organic farmers can be devastating, from rejected shipments to a loss of premiums and, worst of all, the erosion of confidence on the part of consumers. The solution, according to Ken Roseboro, editor of the Non-GMO Report, is to establish enforceable standards in the industry based on strict thresholds and verification.

The bottom line? According to Dillon: “Without seed integrity, food integrity is impossible.”

Related article: The farmer and the GMO rice

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1. by Kim on Mar 12, 2009 at 11:25 AM PDT

Thanks for bringing this to light, Kathleen. And congratulations; we’re promoting it to the top of the home page as part of our Almost-Spring Blogging Contest. Thanks for participating!

2. by KAB on Mar 12, 2009 at 1:37 PM PDT

It’s an important story, and one consumers should be aware of. Thanks for acknowledging it!

The best thing that consumers can do, in addition to demanding labeling of products containing GMOs, is to start asking questions of the seed companies, insisting on a pure product that has been thoroughly tested for the presence of GMOs. It’s important that the organic seed industry establishes thresholds and verification standards, including quality assurance, testing, audits and inspections.

3. by anonymous on Mar 12, 2009 at 7:32 PM PDT

They have to depend on nature for pollination if they are going to produce many seeds at all. Have you ever hand-pollinated a plant? Try growing some zucchini under netting to keep the bees away. Pollinate with a small paintbrush. Now multiply that by thousands of plants. You’ll see how completely unworkable it is. Imagine trying to keep corn pollen from blowing in the wind. Think it is realistic? Try driving through Nebraska in the summer.
We need to regulate the GMOs, not drive small farmers out of business by requiring testing, audits, and inspections they cannot afford to pay for and and do not have the time or personnel to handle. If the companies have released genetic material illegally to contaminate organic food crops, fine them, not the guy who got contaminated. Dropping the hammer on the organics companies and farmers in the name of “strict oversight” would be prosecuting the victim. And it will leave you with the GMOs as your only choice.

4. by Amy McCann on Mar 12, 2009 at 10:11 PM PDT

Great, thought provoking post, Kathleen. I agree with the previous responder that having organic seed companies (and hence organic farmers and organic consumers) pay for strict GMO testing of their seed is a bit backwards. But what is a realistic solution? It seems like forcing this type of testing on organic seed companies could make the organic industry actually take steps backwards. The industry already experiences costs that industrial seed companies and farmers never even think of. All of this makes organic seed and food less accessible to lower income people. Adding more costs would make it even worse. I agree that having GMO-free seed is important, but we need to consider all of the factors.

5. by KAB on Mar 13, 2009 at 12:10 PM PDT

I asked Ken Roseboro of the Non-GMO Report for his response to the issues raised by Amy and anonymous, and he writes:

“I agree with the readers’ comments. The onus of responsibility shouldn’t be put on organic farmers and seed companies. We need liability laws that protect organic farmers and seed companies from economic losses due to GMO contamination. Unfortunately, any such laws that have been proposed, such as in Vermont, never passed due to biotech industry lobbying. The situation is the opposite in some European countries where biotech seed companies are held liable for economic losses farmers suffer due to contamination. It makes sense that the “polluter pays.” We need such legislation here, as well as other legislation that would require isolation distances separating GM from non-GM and organic farms, require health and environmental tests to ensure the safety of GM plants, mandatory labeling of GM foods, etc.

“Unfortunately, we are in a situation where an initiative like the Non-GMO Project is needed to preserve the non-GMO integrity of organic and natural foods. GMO contamination of organics is a growing problem in the US, particularly with corn and soybeans and maybe now sugar beets, and many people in the organic industry have their heads in the sand about it. They don’t want to deal with it, which I understand because it requires time and cost. But people that eat organic food don’t want GMOs in their food. The National Organic Program rules don’t propose ways to prevent GMO contamination so the Non-GMO Project is filling the void. The Project aims to minimize costs to farmers and food companies for non-GMO verification. For example, GMO testing is kept to a minimum.

“This is a difficult challenge, but something has to be done proactively to address it. We should lobby the government for mandatory labeling of GM foods, for tougher regulations on biotech companies and their GM crops, but we also have to do something now to address GMO contamination of organics. If we don’t, the integrity of organic will be destroyed.”

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