Posts Tagged ‘gmo’

Guest post: Farmer Haley’s Take on GMO Labeling

Earlier this summer, I wrote a post for farmer Mike Haley on what GMO labeling looked like from a consumer’s point of view — well, mine, specifically. He agreed to return the favor and talk about how labeling would affect his farming practices. It’s a perspective I haven’t seen elsewhere and that I think adds to the conversation on this complex and emotional issue.

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Farmer Haley’s corn fields

Before I get into the post itself, I would like to thank Jennifer Mo for getting me thinking more about the topic of labeling foods that are derived from genetically engineered (GE) crops and the effects that proposition 37 in California will have on farmers like myself.

As a farmer who grows both GE corn and GE free corn, I often am asked how I feel about this labeling question.  I must admit while I lean towards no labeling, I also have mixed feelings as to whether or not this is the correct stance to take on the issue.  Rather than give my opinions, I want to share how this proposition would affect my farm.

There are several reasons why we plant genetically engineered crops on our farm.  In corn, we choose to plant a variety that was developed to resist insects naturally rather than having to use insecticides that are not as effective and can be very harmful to the handler (me) if a mistake is made when applying it.  Depending on the type of soil, history and current weather trends, we often decide that insects will not be a major issue in a field and plant a non GE variety allowing us to save money, if the trend holds true and we don’t have any issues with insects in that field.

Currently, when it is time to harvest, no measures are taken to completely segregate corn varieties that are GE as there is no premium to do so; we get paid the same price for both GE corn and non GE corn.  It’s hard to tell what would happen if Proposition 37 passed, but I am assuming that my mill would want me to find a way to separate my corn into batches of non GE as well as that that contains GE corn. In other words I would be expected to follow procedures of identity preservation (IP) of all the seed on my farm.

Sounds simple right?

Not really, as I would have to start this process early in the spring.  While planting my fields, I would have to completely clean my planter out when switching from GE varieties as just one seed could completely contaminate the rest of the field.  Then in the fall I would have to do a thorough cleaning of my combine, trucks and wagons when switching between the same fields. Furthermore, it would also be necessary to shut the combine down for about 24 hours while the corn dryer had a chance to catch up so I could clean it out and switch it to the proper grain bin to maintain the identity of the seed.  All of this is possible, but requires valuable time to accomplish and could mean the difference between getting our crop harvested before it snows or not.

It doesn’t stop there, as the real tasks occur after my grain leaves the farm.  Each truckload will have to be tested to determine if the genetic makeup of the grain has been engineered before the farmer would be allowed to dump it into its specified bin, making the lines and time spent at grain terminals longer, as testing delays the process. For the grain terminals, it would also mean having to build more infrastructures that can handle both types of grain without contamination of the non GE varieties.  From this point on, the grain would have to remain segregated.  From railcars to processors and packers and finally the grocery store where it can be labeled as containing GMOs, each step is important and a level of quality control will need to be added.

All of this adds up in cost that will get passed on to the consumer.  On my farm it would be an added cost of about $.50 per bushel on a normal year, or 10 percent, and I could only imagine the increased costs would be similar through each step, adding a huge cost to the amount of food individuals spend on food each year.

All that said, I truly believe that if individuals want labeling, it should be provided, and it is in several ways already on a voluntary basis.  If one wishes to avoid GE foods, it’s simple to purchase organic foods or even look for non organic foods that have the Non-GMO Projects label on them.  These choices may cost more, but that is because it costs more to raise food and preserve the identity of foods by those standards.  This is where I have mixed feelings. Is it right to force everyone to pay more for food just so those who are concerned can have more choices?

The USDA, EPA , FDA and hundreds of other experts say it is as safe as other plants found in nature as other food and from my experience on my farm, I know it has a favorable environmental profile. I’m completely comfortable with it. But I understand others may not be and I’m glad to know the market provides clear choices for them.

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About Mike Haley

Farming’s n my blood! Love raising crops & Simmental Cows! N my spare time I enjoy writing, find me on Twitter @justfarmers & @farmerhaley email: farmerhaley(at)gmail.com

Thoughts on the California GMO labeling initiative

I’m guest blogging over at the Just Farmers blog today about California’s GMO labeling initiative. It’s an issue that I’m solidly on the fence about, and I’ve tried to present both sides fairly. I hope you’ll take a look and let me know what you think! I’ll be featuring farmer Mike Haley’s perspective on the issue next week. Here’s a teaser from the post:

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California’s GMO Labeling Initiative – A Consumer’s Perspective

At an Earth Day festival in the San Francisco Bay Area this year, a GMO labeling activist grabbed my arm and told me that labeling GMOs was ‘a matter of life and death.’  A few months and a lot of signatures later, the initiative met the requirements to be voted on this November.

As a Californian and an environmentally concerned citizen, I’ve been following the developing dialogue on GMOs with interest. I’ve seen a growing divide between public’s perception of genetic engineering and the scientific community’s. And while I share concerns over the long term effects of genetic engineering, I really don’t like the reactionary rhetoric being used to promote labeling. In other words, I’m a fence-sitter.  Instead of taking a stance, I’ve been talking to people: scientists, farmers, environmentalists, parents, science teachers. I’m no closer to making a decision, but I’ve been able to look at the major arguments of each side.

As far as I can tell, the argument in favor of labeling is based on:

  • Desire to make and promote transparent, educated choices. As consumers, we want more information about our food so we can make responsible choices for our own health and that of the environment.
  • Concern about the long term effects of GMOs on human and environmental safety.  The safety testing and information on GMOs is not readily accessible to consumers, and the info that is available tends to be from activists who emphasize risks.

Keep reading at Just Farmers

Photo credit: MillionsAgainstMonsanto

The Curious Case of the Transgenic Papaya

I’m on Elephant Journal today, doing a Q&A with the scientist behind the Hawaiian transgenic papaya. I’ve excerpted the beginning of the interview (and it’s a bit lengthy, so be forewarned) and hope you’ll read it with an open mind. And please ask questions! I’ll do my best to get answers for you.

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Stop by the farmers’ market in Hilo, Hawaii, and you’ll find knobby cherimoyas, avocadoes the size of eggplants, and mounds of papayas, sunset-fleshed and as smooth and sweet as custard.

That wasn’t always the case. Back in the 90s, Hawaiian papaya farmers were faced with devastation from ringspot virus, a plant virus that reduced papaya production by 50% within six years and just kept spreading. Small farmers faced losing their livelihoods when one plant pathologist developed a virus-resistant variety called the Rainbow and distributed the seeds to struggling farmers – for free. Fourteen years later, Hawaii’s small papaya farmers are flourishing.

There’s  a lot to like about this story –the altruism of the researcher, the success of independent local farmers. But there’s one detail that could change everything about how you see it: the Rainbow papaya is genetically modified. A gene from the ringspot virus was inserted into the papaya, where it acts like a built-in vaccine against the virus. In other words, it’s Frankenfood. Or is it?

I say GMO, you think: Monsanto, Big Ag, lobbyists, corporate interests. But none of these played a major role in the GM Rainbow papaya. And for me, that led to an important realization. Genetic engineering technology is not the same thing as Monsanto/ Big Ag policy. It’s a tool. And like all tools, it can be used for good or bad ends.

I’m a skeptic, so I scoured the web for info – agricultural news sites, activist sites, USDA releases, science journals, and blogs. Then I took my questions to the man who developed the Rainbow, Dr. Dennis Gonsalves, retired Professor Emeritus of Plant Pathology at Cornell and now the director of the USDA’s Pacific Basin Agricultural Center. He’s a straight shooter, detailing the successes and challenges of the project with peer reviewed articles and independently verifiable facts. Halfway through our exchange, it hits me: why shouldn’t we always address our science questions to scientists, not lobbyists or activists?

In that spirit, I’ve included his answers to my questions below.

Q: How did you get started with your work on the transgenic papaya?

I was born and raised on a sugar plantation on Hawaii Island but never aspired to be a scientist until I worked as a technician under Dr. Eduardo Trujillo of the University of Hawaii. He let me loose trying to figure out what was causing a disease of papaya and that experience convinced me that I wanted to be a plant pathologist. Dr. Trujillo was a mentor and an inspiration to me as he would periodically to tell me: “Dennis, don’t just be a test tube scientist, but do things to help people.” […] The feeling of joy was incredible when I first inoculated the transgenic papaya in the greenhouse and it showed resistance to PRSV [papaya ringspot virus]. However, that was nice science but how could we translate it to helping people? Naturally, the challenge came when PRSV invaded the Puna district and within a couple of years the Hawaiian papaya industry was in deep trouble. We had a potential solution, had published some nice papers, but did we have the ‘guts’ to try to help the industry survive? We had never attempted to deregulate a transgenic product, as the common thought was that this was the purview of the big companies. But somebody had to do it, and thus we got out of our ‘comfort zone’ in order to help the farmers.

Q: Did you really give out GE (genetically engineered) papaya seeds for free to farmers?

The seeds were initially distributed free to the growers because I believe the industry (Papaya Administrative Committee) got some grant funds from the state to produce the seeds.  Now, the industry produces the seeds and sells them at cost to the growers.

Q: What non-GE methods were used to attempt to combat ringspot virus on Hawai’i?

People have been trying to do classical breeding to get resistance for a long time.  In Carica papaya, there is no resistance.  Some tolerance is found and people have been trying to incorporate these in some lines.  The tolerance is ‘quantitative’ so it can get diluted.  Bottom line, this has not worked for Hawaiian papaya.

Crops rotation, lower densities, etc. have been tried but they do not work because the virus is rapidly transmitted by aphids.  One way that can work economically is to go into virgin areas where it is far from the nearest virus infected papaya, and continually pull out trees as symptoms develop on the new planting. […] Naturally, the more isolated you are the longer for the virus to ‘find’ the papaya field.  One question is:  Environmentally, is it better to clear virgin forest or land to plant papaya than growing virus resistant GE papaya where papaya growing areas already exist?

Keep reading on Elephant Journal…

Photo credit: leahleaf

Would you eat a GMO heirloom tomato?

Brandywine tomatoes are practically the poster child for organic, heirloom produce. Knobbly, warty, and deeply flavored, they’re a far cry from perfectly round red tomatoes. At $3/lb at the farmers’ market, Brandywines are also pretty pricy.

Want to know why you have to pay so much? Brandywines are prone to nematodes, microscopic worms that destroy tomatoes from the roots up. Farmers lose a lot more of their Brandywines to disease than more modern, disease-resistant hybrids. And because they harvest less, more land and water go into producing each pound of these heirloom tomatoes. In using more natural resources than hybrids, these organic, heirloom tomatoes might actually have a larger footprint than their conventional or hybrid counterparts.

Here’s the thing: with our existing technology, we could introduce better disease resistance simply by moving a disease resistant gene from a different type of tomato into the Brandywine, in basically an accelerated version of what plant breeders have been doing for centuries. No interspecies genes, no genes from viruses or bacteria, nothing that we don’t already eat whenever we eat a non-heirloom tomato. A GMO Brandywine could use water and space more effectively and require fewer or no pesticides.

Would you eat this hypothetical GMO heirloom tomato? What if it could be shown to be lower impact than its unmodified cultivar? What if it were clearly labeled?

…and what if you didn’t instinctively flinch at the idea of GMO and everything it stood for?

I’m currently reading Josh Schonwald’s The Taste of Tomorrow, which has a provocative chapter questioning whether the schism between organic and GMO is more ideological than rational. I’m discovering that my problem with GMO is not about the actual science at all: it’s about Monsanto’s business practices, lobbying, and seed patenting. No, I don’t think making farmers dependent on a corporation is a good idea. Yes, I think the Diamond v. Chakrabarty decision that ruled that genes could be patented was a disaster.

But as far as actual genetic modification goes, I’m neutral. It’s a different, and potentially complementary, approach to solving the same problems organic farmers face: disease prevention, yield, nutrition. I’m intrigued by Vitamin A fortified golden rice that could help prevent blindness in some of the poorest areas on the planet. In China, a form of cotton has been genetically modified to contain bacteria that acts as a natural pesticide. It’s helped to reduce pesticide use by 80%. That’s a lot of pesticides that didn’t go into our ground, air, and water. In Hawaii, after ringspot virus devastated papaya trees, scientist Dennis Gonsalves developed a disease resistant GMO papaya variety, released the seeds to farmers for free, and pretty much single-handedly saved the Hawaiian papaya industry and the livelihoods of many small farmers.

Of course there are concerns with GMOs.  I think it’s perfectly legitimate to be concerned about long term effects on human and planetary health, the development of resistance to GMO, monocropping. Like you, I’m upset about the corporatization of food and Monsanto’s monopolistic policies. Although GMO produce goes through rigorous testing, we don’t always know what to test for, and it’s possible, even likely, that there will be results we could not have predicted. Increased production, for example, often triggers an increase in population/consumption (why hello, industrial animal farming), and we’re still biological creatures, after all. Increasing efficiency while decreasing consumption is the hardest challenge we’ve ever faced as a species.

But nor is organic always synonymous with sustainability. Organic tomatoes imported from Mexico are sucking local water tables dry. The organic strawberries at the farmers’ market are still spayed with pesticides that are not necessarily less toxic than synthetic counterparts. We usually think of biodegrading as a good process, but some organic pesticides degrade into toxic chemicals. Is a water-hungry, disease-prone organic plant really ‘greener’ than a GMO with higher yields that requires fewer pesticides? I don’t know.

Everything’s a compromise. Call me a bad greenie for breaking with the ‘organic = good, GMO = bad’ binary, but here’s what I think: Wrenching humanity off its current course of self-destruction and on to a more sustainable path is a big, messy, complicated problem. And ignoring potential solutions just because we’re ideologically — not rationally — opposed may not be helpful in finding solutions. It’s possible we’ll need GMO technology when the climate starts changing too quickly for our old plants and ways of agriculture. It’s possible GMO and organic could complement each other for more sustainable agriculture and stable food supplies. One thing is clear: we can’t go backwards.

What do you think about GMOs? Would you eat a GMO Brandywine?

Photo by Amanda Quintana-Bowles 

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