Organic farms face financial and operational consequences because of the threat of contamination from genetically modified organisms, according to a survey conducted by the Organic Farming and Research Foundation. National standards for organic products, implemented last year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, exclude GMOs from use in organic farming.
Of the more than 1,000 certified organic farmers who responded to the survey, 48 percent said they have taken some measures to protect their organic farms from GMO contamination. Seventeen percent said they paid for testing of seed, inputs (such as manures or composts) or farm products. Of those, 11 percent found GM contamination, which can result in a grower being unable to sell crops as organic.
"The respondents have documented clear economic impact," said Bob Scowcroft, executive director of Santa Cruz, Calif.-based OFRF. "Growers are having to spend, plan or market, relative to GMOs, far more significantly than they had to five years ago. They are losing money."
Survey respondents said GMO-contaminated seed and pollen drift are their primary concerns. Dave Vetter, president of Grain Place Foods in Marquette, Neb., a processing facility and small family farm, has been testing seed for four or five years
"In the last three or four years the seed has come up clean, but we've had detectable levels of some GMO events in the harvest." When that happens, Vetter said, he notifies customers so they can decide if they want to buy corn with trace contamination. One year, he said, he spent $1,500 for testing before he found a load of corn that was acceptable to a buyer. And the time he spent testing also cost him other sales. "There's no future in that," Vetter said. "That probably cut the amount of corn we moved by 35 percent.
"Testing becomes an expensive issue and I don't know how you get around it. I have a cynical view of the situation. The only way you don't have GMO-contaminated corn is if you don't test. And if that's not the case now, it's what the case will be."
In addition to testing to find contamination, growers have changed practices to help prevent it. Nineteen percent have increased the size of buffer zones to neighboring farms, 15 percent have adjusted timing of crop planting and 13 percent have changed cropping patterns or crops produced. Scowcroft said that presently, corn, soy, canola and cotton are the GM commercial crops being grown. But, he adds, "There are hundreds in the pipeline—from hogs and fish to apples, grapes, strawberries, rice and wheat." As the number of GM crops approved by the government increases, contamination potential will grow.
"Right now, [if retailers] buy organic you generally can know, in part because in a very buyer-specific manner, processors are demanding tests and additional steps being taken to ensure the purity of the organic raw material," Scowcroft said. "What the survey shows is, it's landing on the growers' back to pay for this."
American growers may face further economic constraints if other manufacturers share Nell Newman's concerns. She sources corn syrup from Austria—where planting genetically modified crops is banned—for use in Newman's Own organic line, according to an Associated Press news story. Sourcing European ingredients can also add to the cost of a finished product.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 7/p. 1