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Organic Farmers Catch the Drift of Air-Borne Crop Contamination

Local Matters


Published November 1, 2005 at 10:42 p.m.

WESTFIELD -- Jack Lazor of Butterworks Farm talks about his latest corn crop like a proud father discussing his newborn. Lazor is due to harvest the corn any day now. He says the ears look beautiful but Lazor can't say yet what the crop is worth -- especially since it may have been cross-pollinated by genetically engineered corn planted accidentally by one of his neighbors. More than a year after Vermont enacted a GMO seed-labeling law, apparently some farmers still aren't sure what kinds of seeds they're sowing -- and anti-GMO activists want seed companies to make it clearer which ones are genetically altered.

In May, Lazor planted 10 acres of Early Riser corn along the Missisquoi River. But unlike most Vermont corn, which is grown to feed cows, Lazor's rare, organic variety will be used primarily for human consumption and seed. In fact, Lazor claims his is the first seed corn grown in Vermont in almost 70 years. Typically, Vermont corn comes from hybrid seeds imported from the Midwest.

Lazor's corn is also different in another sense. It's "open-pollinated." That means the plants are fertilized by pollen from nearby corn plants, which may include another Westfield farm about half a mile upwind of Lazor's, where the crop is genetically engineered. "If I find GMOs in my seed, that's even worse than finding it in my feed," says Lazor, who also raises livestock organically. "If it's contaminated, I can't use it."

According to Lazor, his neighbor, Armand Pion, didn't know he had planted GE corn. The two farmers only realized what had happened after his neighbor complained to him about the high price of his seed. Suspicious, Lazor read the fine print on the label and spotted the terms "Bt" and "Roundup Ready." Both are Monsanto trademarks that confirm the seeds had been genetically engineered.

Lazor's neighbor didn't respond to phone calls from Seven Days. However, GMO opponents say such confusion is understandable. The first-in-the-nation Vermont law enacted last year requires that all genetically engineered seeds be properly labeled. However, GMO opponents say that the language is often so technical that some farmers don't realize what they're planting until it's already in the ground.

How common is the problem? Lazor, a self-described anti-GMO activist, claims he's heard "several" such stories from around the state, but those couldn't be confirmed. Affected farmers may not want to go public for fear of compromising their reputations.

Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Steve Kerr isn't convinced there's a problem. He calls such concerns overblown and unfounded. Vermont's GE seed-labeling law has worked well so far, he says, and no biotech company has ever been cited for violating it. In fact, Kerr met last week with representatives from seven GE-seed manufacturers to review their 2006 labels and technology-use agreements and make sure they all conform to the law.

"Our determination is that all the manufacturers who are selling [genetically engineered] product in Vermont meet both the spirit and letter of the law," he says. "That said, there's always room for improvement."

Kerr dismisses Lazor's fears about genetically altered pollen contaminating his cornfield and refutes the oft-repeated claim that organic farmers are losing money to so-called GMO "genetic drift." Kerr calls it "a largely hypothetical argument that doesn't seem to be playing out in the real world." In fact, he even takes issue with use of the word "contamination."

"'Contamination' suggests a danger or damage to be done," says Kerr. "There is no scientific evidence that genetically altered DNA is dangerous. DNA is DNA. We eat it all the time. To be very blunt, the folks who are opposed to GE products are not only wrong, I think they're unwisely misrepresenting the issue."

Drew Hudson, field director for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, disagrees. He suspects that GMO drift occurs all the time -- and organic farmers pay the price for it. Two years ago, VPIRG tested crops from 12 organic farms and turned up one case of GMO contamination. Likewise, King Arthur Flour in Norwich, which sells organic flour and requires that all its organic grain be tested before it's purchased, has reportedly turned down flour that tested positive for GMOs.

"Steve Kerr is operating under what we call the 'Don't ask, don't tell' policy," says Hudson. "If nobody has said they'd like to sell their [organic] seed for less because it's been contaminated by a GMO farm next door, then it's not happening."

Hudson says he's also heard stories of farmers who inadvertently purchased GE seeds. That problem could become more pervasive, he says, now that Monsanto, the world's largest developer of genetically modified organisms, has bought out Seminis, the nation's largest seller of consumer fruit and vegetable seeds. This summer, VPIRG launched a "Know What You Grow" campaign to better inform home gardeners about what they're planting. As Hudson points out, the seed-labeling law only requires biotech companies to identify the plants' traits. "Unless you're Jack Lazor and have spent hundreds of hours in the last few years studying this stuff, you're not in a position to recognize it right off the bat," Hudson adds.

Lazor says he'll spend the $125 to get his Early Riser corn tested once it's been harvested to find out if his seed is still GMO-free. If it's not, he says, it will cost him "thousands and thousands of dollars." But he admits that many other organic farmers may not spend the money to find out.

About 25 percent of the 98,000 acres of corn in Vermont are genetically engineered; nearly all of Vermont's soybean crop is GMO, too. Next spring, GE alfalfa will be available in Vermont for the first time.