Features » February 10, 2003
Seeds of Domination
Don’t want GMOs in your food? It may already be too late.
Walter Fehr is an agronomist and director of the Office of Biotechnology at Iowa State University. He says genetically engineered varieties of staple crops like corn and soybeans have contaminated seed stocks all the way to the “breeder seed,” the purest version of a crop variety. If breeder seed contains material from genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, all the seeds and plants that descend from that stock will contain GMOs as well. According to Fehr, transgenic contamination of breeder and other seed stocks “happens routinely.”
That shocks Theresa Podoll, executive director of the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society (NPSAS), an organization that represents 350 organic farmers throughout the Upper Midwest and Canada. Podoll is intimately familiar with the problems GMOs are causing organic farmers, but she is astounded to hear somebody within the biotech establishment admit that transgenic contamination goes all the way to breeder seed.
Podoll points out that the nation’s agricultural universities, the so-called land-grant institutions, are charged with safeguarding the public seed stocks. “If research with transgenic crops at land-grant facilities makes contamination of the seed stocks a forgone conclusion, why are they doing transgenic research?” she asks. “To gamble all our crops’ genetic resources to do research on a questionable technology that is in its infancy is unconscionable.”
Genetically engineered crops were first commercially planted just seven years ago. Ninety-nine percent of the world’s estimated 145 million acres of genetically modified crops are planted in four countries: Argentina, Canada, China and the United States. Four crops—canola, corn, cotton and soybeans—that are altered to tolerate herbicides or produce pesticides make up most of these plantings.
From the beginning, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration deemed biotech food “substantially equivalent—that is, no different from food produced by conventional breeding methods, which can only occur between members of the same or closely related species. This classification does not require long-term food-safety testing. Such tests have never been done on GMO crops.
However, in order to breach the natural barriers between species and make foreign genes function in their new homes, bioengineers use genes from viruses and bacteria, as well as genes resistant to antibiotics needed to treat human diseases. The public health implications of this genetic manipulation are unknown. The technology also raises concerns about the creation of toxic substances and allergens that have never been part of the human diet. For these reasons, the British Medical Association and other scientists have called for a worldwide moratorium on GMO crops until safety questions are answered.
Fehr’s conclusions are not based on comprehensive research documenting the extent of transgenic contamination in the public seed stocks held by Iowa State or other public agricultural institutions, though such an effort is now underway at his university. However, the problem of GMO contamination became “obvious,” he says, when Europe raised concerns about receiving bioengineered soybeans and corn after the first commercial harvest of transgenic crops in 1996. “From that point on, the whole issue of contamination has been at the forefront of our thinking.”
Fehr is not the only one who acknowledges the transgenic contamination of seed stocks. The Grain Quality Task Force at Purdue University also notes that “whenever new genetic material is introduced into the agricultural crop mix, trace contamination of non-target crops is unavoidable.”
That’s because wind and insects carry genetically engineered pollen far and wide. According to Kendall Lamkey, a corn breeder at Iowa State, the traits of GMO crops are dominant because there is nothing in a non-transgenic receptor plant’s genome to counter the introduced foreign genes.
Contamination also occurs when GMO seeds fall into non-transgenic fields from farm equipment previously used on a gene-altered crop. Researchers are not required to use separate equipment for GMO varieties that are already commercialized; and because of the cost and trouble of keeping them separate from everything else, Fehr says, they don’t. “If you’re growing both GMO and non-GMO and running them through the same equipment and cleaning facilities,” he says, “you can be assured that there’s going to be contamination.”
For years, Podell and her organization have been raising concerns about contamination from transgenic research plots at North Dakota State University, their local land-grant institution. In 2001, NPSAS learned that a research plot of wheat engineered to resist Roundup, Monsanto’s best-selling herbicide, had been planted at North Dakota State next to the foundation seed stocks for Coteau wheat, which is popular among organic growers.
Foundation seed stocks, which are grown directly from breeder seed, form the genetic basis for any given crop variety. They are “the seed for the seed” that farmers buy and plant. Genetically modified wheat—like Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready”—is not approved for human consumption, yet North Dakota State told the NPSAS via e-mail that “there can be no guarantee that GMO DNA has not been introduced” into any wheat varieties grown at its research stations.
Last March, the NPSAS delivered a petition with more than 1,600 signatures from farmers and consumers to North Dakota State officials, demanding that transgenic crops not be planted or handled where conventional seeds were bred, grown, cleaned or stored. The petition also went to three other land-grant institutions: South Dakota State University, the University of Minnesota and Montana State University.
In May, Fred Cholick, dean of the College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences at South Dakota State, acknowledged the problem and told NPSAS that protocols were in place to prevent transgenic contamination. The protocols include testing to make sure seed stocks and conventional varieties are GMO-free. However, Cholick also said more than 80 percent of his university’s soybean varieties were already transgenic. He ended his letter with this disclaimer: “As a biologist, I also realize that genetic systems are not perfect.”
Minnesota and Montana State officials say they understand the need to keep seed varieties pure and are following procedures to do so. But they didn’t spell what steps they were taking, nor did they agree to NPSAS’s demand to halt work on genetically engineered crops in facilities that also contain foundation seed stocks.
North Dakota State, however, did agree last year to use separate, designated equipment for harvesting transgenic research plots. While this is a positive step, it only applies to crop varieties not yet approved for commercial release. Dale Williams, who’s in charge of seed stocks at the university, defends the protocols and says that even if foundation seed stocks are contaminated by GMOs, “it’s not that much of a problem.”
The university’s foundation seed stocks are now routinely tested for GMOs, and so far none have turned up in any of the samples. But relying on tests from seed samples is not foolproof. John Lukach, a research manager at the university, points out that to be absolutely sure GMOs aren’t present, every single seed would need to be tested. Further, some commonly used testing methods can only detect GMOs at a contamination level of about 10 percent.
If transgenes are detected, Williams says, North Dakota State could produce new foundation stocks from breeder seed (assuming it isn’t already contaminated) or take, say, 100 randomly selected seed samples from the foundation plots, test them, and, if they are free of GMOs, use that seed to produce another foundation crop. Kendall Lamkey, the corn breeder from Iowa State, says either of those strategies could work, but he doubts either would be employed for contamination with GMOs that are already approved—like Roundup Ready soybeans.
In fact, last autumn two lots of North Dakota State foundation seed stocks for Natto soybeans, a non-GMO variety, were found to be contaminated with Roundup Ready genes. Williams says the contamination occurred in the winter of 2000 when the seeds were sent down to Chile. (In the winter, breeder seed and foundation seed stocks are typically sent to nurseries in warmer climates.) The contamination wasn’t discovered until after the seed was brought back and grown out at a North Dakota State seed farm—and then not until after some of the seed had been distributed to growers of registered and certified seed, who sell to organic and other farmers.
Theresa Podoll says that the university had promised that any foundation seed stocks found to be contaminated with GMOs would be destroyed. But in November, Williams told North Dakota’s Grand Forks Herald that since Roundup Ready soybeans are “not regulated”—that is, they are approved for human consumption—“small amounts of it, or tolerances of amounts, are allowed in most markets.”
But GMOs are not allowed in organic food. The widespread transgenic contamination of organic crops threatens the very existence of organic grain producers throughout the Midwest, a situation that speaks volumes about mainstream agriculture’s deep-seated bias against non-industrial farming systems. In The Last Harvest, Paul Raeburn writes that for decades, organic farming was “dismissed as the work of zealots,” and that USDA scientists—many of whom are stationed at land grant universities—historically looked upon organic production systems as “gardening” and “irrelevant to modern agriculture.”
By contrast, industrial agriculture has enjoyed enormous benefits. These included the close working relationships between the land-grant universities and agribusiness corporations like Monsanto, massive public subsidies for commodity crops, and weak environmental and public health laws that permit widespread pollution of air, water, soil and food with chemicals and fertilizers used in industrial agriculture.
Despite the uneven playing field, the success of organic farming has made it impossible to ignore. With consistent growth in retail sales of 20 percent a year since 1990, organics are the fastest-growing sector in the food industry. When given a choice, increasing numbers of people show with their purchases that they want their food produced in an environmentally friendly manner. Food manufacturers have taken notice, and large conglomerates now own the major organic food companies.
Still, GMO contamination is reaching crisis portions in the organic-farming community. “Organic producers can no longer produce organic corn,” says NPSAS president Janet Jacobson, an organic farmer in North Dakota’s northeast corner. “I don’t know any organic farmers that can grow canola, because there’s so much GMO canola around. There are also organic farmers who have had soybeans rejected because they were contaminated with GMOs.”
Transgenic contamination is now so rampant that the FDA prohibits organic food manufacturers from labeling their products “GMO-free.”
In Canada, a group called the Saskatchewan Organic Directorate (SOD) last year filed a lawsuit on behalf of all certified organic producers in the province, seeking millions of dollars in damages from Monsanto and Aventis, another biotech corporation (which was recently purchased by Bayer), for the loss of the organic canola market due to GMO contamination. Canola is pollinated by insects, and SOD claims the companies knew, or ought to have known, when they introduced bioengineered canola that it would spread and contaminate the environment and neighboring farmers’ fields. SOD is also seeking an injunction against the introduction of transgenic wheat.
Unlike conventional agriculture, which relies on chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers to be able to produce one or two crops year after year, organic agriculture can only work by growing a diversity of crops in rotation around the farm. Crop rotations enable organic farmers to control pests and weeds and manage diseases, while also building soil fertility. With corn, soybeans and canola already gone from organic crop rotations on the northern plains, SOD President Arnold Taylor says the loss of wheat would be catastrophic. The introduction of GMO wheat would likely spell the end of organic farming on the northern prairie.
Organic farmers aren’t the only ones who have suffered from the introduction of biotech crops. Consumers overseas, particularly in Europe, have emphatically rejected GMOs. Dan MacGuire, a policy analyst with the American Corn Growers Association, says economic analysis of USDA data reveals that the introduction of biotech corn is directly responsible for a roughly 30 cent per bushel drop in corn prices. With returns to farmers at their lowest level in decades, and well below the cost of production, he says farmers cannot afford this further cut.
Conventional farmers and the folks who distribute commodity corn already incurred huge losses because StarLink corn, a biotech variety not approved for human consumption, found its way into more than 300 food products—including Taco Bell taco shells—in 2000 and 2001. The StarLink incident prompted expensive recalls and a massive legal quagmire that will take years to resolve. StarLink contamination is still an issue; in December, Japanese officials detected it in a shipment from the United States.
Rejection of GMOs in foreign markets and the contamination debacle have made transgenic wheat the subject of raging debate and political infighting in North Dakota. Wheat is North Dakota’s No. 1 industry, indirectly generating some $4 billion a year. Half of the crop is exported, and buyers in eight of its 11 main export markets have said they don’t want transgenic wheat. Many have warned that they’ll go elsewhere if GMO wheat is planted because of the likelihood of transgenic contamination. As a result, most farming organizations in North Dakota have called for a moratorium on the commercial release of Roundup Ready wheat until there are assurances that export markets won’t evaporate. So far, powerful Republicans in the state Senate have blocked such a measure.
Some supporters have indicated that the biotech industry may be deliberately contaminating the food supply with GMOs so that alternatives to bioengineered food no longer exist. In January 2001, food industry consultant Don Westfall told the Toronto Star: “The hope of the industry is that over time the market is so flooded that there’s nothing you can do about it. You just sort of surrender.”
Last April, Dale Adolphe, executive director of the Canadian Seed Growers Association, told Canadian canola growers at their annual meeting that despite growing public opposition and new regulations, the increasing acreage of bioengineered crops may eventually end the debate. Adolphe told The Western Producer, a Canadian agricultural paper, “It’s a hell of a thing to say that the way we win is don’t give the consumer a choice, but that might be it.”
Perhaps the biotech industry has already won.
What do you want to see from our coverage of the 2020 presidential candidates?
As our editorial team maps our plan for how to cover the 2020 Democratic primary, we want to hear from you:
It only takes a minute to answer this short, three-question survey, but your input will help shape our coverage for months to come. That’s why we want to make sure you have a chance to share your thoughts.