The Organic Farmers who are pushing for the establishment of ‘GE-free zones’ across the US got a boost from Jackson County, Oregon. The ‘GE-Free Zones’ seeks to establish areas in which the growth and farming of genetically engineered plants will be restricted. This makes the Jackson County to be the eighth county in the US establishing such an ordinance. Already pressure is already building up calling for other counties in the nation to pass similar measures.
The Jackson County ordinance was finalised after a federal judge approved a consent decree protecting the zone on Dec. 22. Originally passed in May 2014 by the voters of Jackson County, the Zone faced legal issues which delayed the establishment of the zone after it was challenged in court by two genetically engineered alfalfa farmers, who insisted that it violated Oregon state law ordinance. In May the same year, the challenge was rejected by a federal judge. Further to this, a court-approved settlement that upheld the GE-free zone and allowed the alfalfa farmers to keep their crop for the remainder of its useful life was finally approved in December.
There exist diverse types of genetically modified plants and animals. The idea of genetic engineering particularly on the food chain is a hotly contested issue across the U.S., with safety of these crops and animals subjected to GE being a primary concern among members of the public. This is due to their perceived impacts on public health and the environment. The labeling of genetically engineered foods with a GE-label has been pushed by various groups in the quest to make it easier for consumers to easily identify products that do contain genetically modified organisms.
However, the concern in establishing GE-free farming zones is largely an economic one. The protection of non-GE crops from contamination with modified product is the goal behind the creation the zones, this according to proponents, arguing that this risk has become a threat to the livelihood of traditional and organic farmers. This fear is known as transgenic contamination which is purely “the mixing of unwanted, unintentional GE content with traditional and/or organic crops or wild plants,” according to George Kimbrell, senior attorney at the Center for Food Safety, an environmental advocacy group promoting organic and sustainable agriculture, and counsel in the Jackson County case.
This can happen when genetically engineered crops are cultivated close to non-GE crops leading to bees and other pollinators to potentially carry pollen between the two thus spreading the genes from the genetically modified plants.
This concern is multi-faceted. Foremost, as put by Elise Higley who is a Jackson County-based farmer and executive director of the Our Family Farms Coalition, (an advocacy group for traditional farming which helped spearhead the Jackson County ordinance); federal patent laws protecting the right to produce and sell certain genetically modified organisms is a definite risk in that one is not able to legally save and sell seed if it has any kind of contamination .
Secondly, Elise Higley says there could be a rejection by domestic organic markets largely driven by the worry of having contaminated products advertising their products as being GE-free. And the ability to export to the international market is another consideration as well, according to Kimbrell.
“A lot of our export markets…have a very different view of GE crops than the U.S. government does, and they require labeling, they have restrictions, they haven’t approved a number of GE crops that we have approved,” Kimbrell said. “Time and time again, U.S. farmers have lost literally billions of dollars through these contamination incidents.”
China turned down corn shipments from the U.S. in 2014 due to the fact that the shipment contained a banned variety of genetically modified corn produced by Syngenta. This event was estimated to have cost the U.S. agriculture industry nearly $3 billion by experts. To be clear, these losses were not necessarily the result of contamination in the field via pollination, but rather the fact that the shipments themselves included the GE corn variety. However, the incident illustrates the often severe stances of other countries on the shipment and sale of genetically modified organisms.
Monetary losses as a result of contamination in the field have also been seen. A report made in 2008 by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements noted that contamination via cross-pollination has resulted in losses for organic farmers in Europe, Canada, the U.S., Korea, Brazil and elsewhere and suggested that “GM contamination can give rise to a wide range of economic impacts beyond those related to legal tolerance standards. These include lost markets, lost sales, lower prices, negative publicity, withdrawal of organic certification and product recalls.”
Jennifer Kuzma, professor and director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University says that few studies have been done to establish economic losses due to this type of contamination. Pointing to one study done by Food and Water Watch, she says that it was found that a third of respondents had experience with contamination and about half of these products had been rejected by buyers as a result. However, she noted that the sample size was fairly small, including only 268 responses. Kuzma, further says that the concerns about the close cultivation of GE and non-GE crops is a growing issue.
“I think it’s a serious issue, and a lot of ethical questions come up about who reaps the benefits and who bears the cost of insuring a lack of contamination,” Kuzma said. “We’ve heard arguments on both sides, with organic farmers saying that they’re largely responsible for creating these buffer zones. Sometimes they’ll delay planting so the crops don’t pollinate at the same time as a GM farmer’s crops do.”
Kimbrell points out that the issue of GE-free zones becomes a concern at this point. The lack of national guidance on the separation or coexistence of GE and non-GE agricultural zones is leading individual localities, such as Jackson County, to literally intervene with their own ordinances.
She says that “Until we have those restrictions on a federal level, until we have liability on the patent holder for contamination, then we need these zones in order to have any alternative to the current dominant paradigm of the GE crop systems,”.
Counties that have enacted similar ordinances like Jackson County include five counties in California, and at least one in Washington, Hawaii and another in Oregon with many more being expected to follow suit. Costilla County in Colorado, for instance, is currently pushing for a GE-free zone, although the ordinance has not yet been enacted. However, legal challenges to such ordinances is expected. Shortly after the Jackson County ordinance received enough signatures for the ballot, for instance, the state of Oregon passed an emergency bill barring any other counties from regulating GE agriculture.
Even in the scientific community, the issue remains a knotty with scientists largely concluding that genetically modified organisms are safe for human consumption with immense environmental benefits. This despite public skepticism with continued to push for more transparent GMO labeling. Economic concerns by farmers who wish to keep their crops GE-free is just a part of the storm.