Can we coexist?

With religious wars around the world erupting almost constantly, you might be feeling grateful that you live in a country where there is separation of church and state. But dont rest too easy, another conflict is brewing- this time in agriculture.

i-d08d60173088f3965e7ee5177d994456-il_fullxfull.185818184.jpeg

Twenty years ago organic farmers in our area began growing specialty sunflowers to sell for cut flowers. Although most of the pollen from organic sunflowers does not travel further than 3 meters, some of it can travel up to distances of 1000 meters, which can cause problems for growers of certified sunflower seed. If stray organic pollen should land on a sunflower grown for seed and hybridize with it, the resulting seed will no longer be purebred, reducing the value of the crop. This is the reason that sunflower seed growers in the valley were concerned about gene flow from organic sunflowers.

The certified seed growers and organic flower growers came to an agreement. The seed growers gave the organic growers sterile seed that gave rise to flowers with no pollen- thus eliminating the risk of gene flow. This compromise offers a good example of how discussions among neighbors can lead to mutual benefits. California farmers grow 350 recognized crop and livestock commodities under a variety of farming conditions, often on adjoining fields. Good communication and common sense is key to peaceful coexistence. Can we apply these principles to all crop production methods–GE, organic, and conventional?

According to some in the organic community we can and we must. Setting a threshold for acceptable pollen drift (as the National Organic Program Standards has done for pesticide drift- and here it is important to keep in mind that some pesticides are toxic to humans and other animals whereas GE alfalfa pollen is not), will foster coexistence and address the concerns of organic growers who deserve assurance that their markets will not be affected by small amounts of pollen flow. Others in the organic community, say no, GE and organic production methods cannot coexist.

Journalist Dan Charles addressed these issues in a recent National Public Radio story about afalfa genetically engineered to tolerate the herbicide RoundUp. The story is timely because the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service recently announced that it will allow American farmers to plant genetically engineered alfalfa, which is widely used as feed for dairy cows and horses.

i-89cbfedfc9c626e479d73cbb89ceea14-imgres-2.jpeg

Weeds are a major limitation of crop production globally, as they compete for nutrients and sunlight. Many are also toxic to animals so forage that is contaminated with weeds can be problematic for the farmer and her cows. One method to control weeds is to spray herbicides that kill them. Many of the herbicides used over the last 50 years are classified as toxic or slightly toxic to animals and humans (classes I, II and III). Some newer herbicides, however, are considered nontoxic (class IV). An example of the latter, the herbicide glyphosate (trade name Roundup), is essentially a modified amino acid that blocks a chloroplast enzyme (called 5-enolpyruvoyl-shikimate-3-phosphate synthetase [EPSPS]) that is required for plant, but not animal, production of tryptophan. Glyphosate has a very low acute toxicity, is not carcinogenic, breaks down quickly in the environment and thus does not persist in groundwater.

Some crop plants have been genetically engineered for tolerance to glyphosate. In these herbicide-tolerant crops, a gene, isolated from the bacterium Agrobacterium encoding an EPSPS protein resistant to glyphosate, is engineered into the plant. Growers of herbicide-tolerant crops can spray glyphosate to control weeds without harming their crop.

Although herbicide-tolerant crops do not directly benefit organic farmers, who are prohibited from using herbicides, or poor farmers in developing countries, who often cannot afford to buy the herbicides, there are clear advantages to conventional growers and to the environment in developed countries.

One important environmental benefit is that the use of glyphosate has displaced the use of more toxic (classes I, II and III) herbicides. For example, in the Central Valley of California, most conventional alfalfa farmers use diuron (class III) to control weeds. Diuron, which also persists in ground water, is toxic to aquatic invertebrates (EXTOXNET – EXTENSION TOXICOLOGY NETWORK 1996). Planting of herbicide tolerant-tolerant alfalfa varieties is therefore expected to improve water quality in the valley and enhance biodiversity (STRANDBERG and PEDERSON 2002). Switching from Diuron to glyphosate in alflafa production is predicted to have environmental benefits as measured in environmental impact and likely health benefits for farmworkers (FERNANDEZ-CORNEJO and MCBRIDE 2002).

One drawback to the application of herbicides is that overuse of a single herbicide can lead to the evolution of weeds that are resistant to that herbicide. The evolution of resistant weeds has been documented for herbicide-tolerant traits developed through selective breeding, mutagenesis and genetic engineering. To mitigate the evolution of weed resistance and prolong the usefulness of herbicide-tolerant crops, a sustainable management system is needed. Such approaches require switching to another herbicide or mixtures of herbicides or employing alternative weed control methods (COMMITTEE ON THE IMPACT OF BIOTECHNOLOGY ON FARM-LEVEL ECONOMICS AND SUSTAINABILITY and NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL 2010). Implementation of a mandatory crop diversity strategy would also greatly reduce weed resistance. Newer herbicide-tolerant varieties will have tolerance to more than one herbicide, which will allow easier herbicide rotation or mixing, and, in theory, help to improve the durability of effectiveness of particular herbicides.

Most forage experts believe the economic issues related to pollen flow between genetically engineered and non-genetically engineered crops can be resolved peacefully without resorting to steps that are extraordinary or expensive. Just as our neighbors managed to do 20 years ago.

Comments

  1. #1 Ewan R
    June 13, 2011

    It seems that allowing RR alfalfa will only increase the net amount of herbicides used in the US, increase Monsanto’s profits and increase the probability of more weeds developing resistance.

    And make Alfalfa growing an easier and more profitable experience for Alfalfa growers, and improve forage quality from alfalfa (aswell as increasing the profits of forage genetics) (the extent to which it increases the probability of weeds developing resistance is probably dependant on the acreage planted and the utilization of weed control management systems that extend beyond simply using roundup – the extent to which resistance matters is another issue – if you’re against roundup ready crops then shurely widespread resistance to glyphosate in weed species is an awesome thing (I’ve yet to see a good explanation as to why resistance to glyphosate is the evil it is portrayed as to those opposed to the use of glyphosate – sure, it is horrible if you’re someone who uses glyphosate, sells glyphosate, or sells seed with the RR trait – for anyone else however – what’s the deal?))

  2. #2 Jes Skillman
    June 11, 2011

    I know that this is a bit late, but Ewan made an important point that was somewhat overlooked. Only 20% of alfalfa growers currently actually use herbicides.

    It seems that allowing RR alfalfa will only increase the net amount of herbicides used in the US, increase Monsanto’s profits and increase the probability of more weeds developing resistance.

  3. #3 MikeB
    April 5, 2011

    Hello. I’m a bit late, but I find this topic fascinating.

    I worked on an organic farm for several years. Fine summer job. Thought the claims of organic farmers made sense. Was vaguely against GMOs…

    Then a group of us decided to start our own farm. We wanted to be certified organic, so I began reading the manuals…

    Oh, boy. What a crock.

    I’ve undergone a sea change over the last year or so. I’m no longer interested in organic certification, though I haven’t changed my farming methods much. I no longer have a phobia about pesticides. In fact, I’m taking a licensing exam in a few weeks.

    The long and short is this: organic farmers are not interested in cooperating with “conventional” farmers, and they hate GMOs, period. Organic farming itself is more belief system than farming method. I discovered, to my horror, that the manuals recommend “homeopathic remedies” over “allopathic” medicine.

    I could write a book.

    To see what the attitude is like, read this screed by Ronnie Cummins:

    http://www.commondreams.org/view/2011/02/23-9

  4. #4 Ewan R
    April 1, 2011

    I’m grateful to have flaws in my points highlighted, just not with condescension and derision dripping from every syllable.

    Alas sounding like a jackass is my cross to bear – as my wife constantly reminds me – I remain too lazy to do anything about it however.

  5. #5 Susan Guest
    April 1, 2011

    My odd sloganeering was uttered by Henry Kissinger in the 70s and is directly relevant to patents on life.

    I’m grateful to have flaws in my points highlighted, just not with condescension and derision dripping from every syllable.

  6. #6 Ewan R
    April 1, 2011

    I see no personal attacks. Highlighting flaws in your points isn’t a personal attack. Pointing out that your odd sloganeering is essentially devoid of context isn’t a personal attack.

  7. #7 Susan Guest
    April 1, 2011

    Ewan, clearly I am deficient, and do not have the skills required to participate in discussions that turn to personal attacks.

  8. #8 Hinemoana
    April 1, 2011

    @ TL (#8)
    “What herbicides do you plan to make the “new herbicide tolerant varieties” resistant against? Sounds like you will be using more herbicides in the long run.”
    Not necessarily. A crop that is resistant to more than one herbicide need not be sprayed with all those herbicides at once. It would merely allow the farmer to choose which herbicide they want to use for that particular season. i.e. the same amount of herbicide will be used, just different herbicides each time so that weeds are less likely to evolve resistance to any one of them.
    Also, contrary to popular opinion, more herbicide use is not always a bad thing. Under the old system, farmers are forced to aggressively till their land and often over-use herbicides in order to ensure few weeds would survive to impede their crop. This is because the farmer often cannot apply herbicides after their crop begins to grow; it is imperative that they do not apply too little herbicide and so they often end up using too much. Also, many of the older pesticides are very durable. That is, they retain residual activity for long periods in order to provide season-long weed control. This durability also means that the herbicide is more likely to contaminate groundwater and waterways. Under the new system of herbicide-resistant crops, farmers need not till as aggressively (or, sometimes, at all), nor over-apply herbicides before planting their crop. This is because a farmer may spray his crop as it is growing. So, if the weeds were insufficiently killed earlier, the farmer can simply spray again later. Additionally, as the herbicides aren’t required to remain residually active all season, newer herbicides that decompose rabidly can be used. This means that groundwater and waterways are far less likely to become contaminated despite a greater volume being used.

  9. #9 Ewan R
    March 31, 2011

    “Control oil and you control nations; control food and you control the people.”

    Control alt delete when you can’t think of a response that actually follows the thread of conversation?

  10. #10 Susan Guest
    March 31, 2011

    http://www.un.org/esa/sustdev/csd/csd16/PF/presentations/farmers_relief.pdf

    “Control oil and you control nations; control food and you control the people.”

  11. #11 Ewan R
    March 31, 2011

    One of the prime tenets of organic food is the belief system — that nature knows more than we do about how to operate an ecosystem and maintain health of living things.

    Isn’t that rather nonsensical given that organic farmers intervene constantly – weeding, spraying rotenone, spraying Bt, planting seed year in year out – getting in nature’s way all the time – if ecosystem operation was how we provided our food we’d still be paleolithic and probably arguing over whether or not Big-Wheel was responsible for the current decline in wildebeest fecundity. You make it sound like being an organic farmer is some walk in the park whereby nature takes care of everything, when I’m pretty sure that the reality is that it takes a whole bunch more work than conventional Ag farming.

    What organic farmer would accept sterile seed?

    Presumably the ones growing organic sunflowers in California who did so 20 years ago. The answer is right there in the piece. I’m surprised you didn’t read it.

    Nowhere in the article was it suggested that exactly the same solution was the correct action – it was merely an illustration that despite how certain camps within the organic movement would like the movement as a whole to be viewed oragnic farmers are not obstinate lackwits who will not budge on anything due to pure ideology.

    So the rest of your rant about sterile seeds is somewhat unnecessary (as even if it were applied in the situation described it would of course be the GE crop that would be non-pollen producing – the onus being on the crop which reduces the value of the neighbors crop (although Pam’s subsequent paragraph describes a far better methodology for sorting things out given that unlike certified seed whicch requires purity organic requires no such thing))

  12. #12 Susan Guest
    March 31, 2011

    What organic farmer would accept sterile seed? None that I know would, voluntarily.

    I also loved the first comment regarding ‘if the government says it’s safe, it’s safe.’ (Shut up and go back to sleep.) After volunteering to serve rescue workers at Ground Zero on and for two weeks after 9/11, the most ludicrous claim ever to be uttered was the EPA saying that the air was safe to breathe. Credibility forever lost. Economics reigned….Wall Street had to re-open, you know. But I stray from the topic at hand, even though it’s one and the same. Corporations write legislation and pay for politicians. And conduct their own studies. And fund university research. And have a rotating door in and out of Washington and its agencies.

    Safe for who? Coexist how with the offer of sterile seeds and forever being bound to buy them? I DO see now how that is sustainable agriculture – sustainable from an ongoing revenue perspective on the part of the seed provider. What happens to that sustainability when the price of oil stops the production of this sterile seed and its requisite chemicals? What seeds will be left? Oh, yes. They’re in the Arctic seedbank.

  13. #13 Alice Elliott Brown
    March 31, 2011

    Offering sterile seed as a solution for contamination is hardly coexistence. One of the prime tenets of organic food is the belief system — that nature knows more than we do about how to operate an ecosystem and maintain health of living things. Sterility goes against the grain of a functioning natural system. And once again, it puts the farmer in the position of having to buy seed every year.

  14. #14 afiliados
    March 29, 2011

    I’m sure thats meant to mean ‘horses and dairy cows’, but I read it as ‘dairy cows and [dairy] horses’. Is it very sad that I laughed pretty hard?

    Then I wondered if there are dairy horses, and what their milk might taste like.

  15. #15 Ewan R
    March 28, 2011

    Monsanto has successfully sued a bunch of farmers over cross pollination.

    No they haven’t. Legal action is only taken in situations where presence of the transgene could not be simply accidental – ie from cross pollination (where one might expect to see less than 1% cross pollination) – this simply doesn’t apply to any of the cases that have been taken to court, or indeed brought up with farmers (most of whom will simply admit to saving seed, pay a token fine and get on with life) – these nonsensical tropes need to go away – minor cross pollination doesn’t get anyone sued
    nobody loses their whole crop through a little bit of cross pollination other than in cases where the system in which they operate is specifically designed to attempt to exclude the utilization of GMOs utterly – such as the system in Australia where presence of GM Canola in the waterways of a farm which wasn’t even growing Canola was enough to negate organic certification – how anyone can spin this as GMOs are bad as opposed to the organic rules in place are stupid (as in they don’t make sense – they’re actually relatively clever and sneaky for what they’re clearly designed to do) and obviously designed with malice of forethought in an attempt to prevent the utilization of GM crops.

    Also note that where you claim Monsanto profits from sueing farmers for presence of the transgene you are also wrong – proceeds from legal action taken to protect the IP rights of Monsanto are donated to organizations like FFA – so in essence the money is ploughed right back into farming communities and enriches not a single shareholder (much to Wall Street’s chagrin no doubt)

  16. #16 matt
    March 27, 2011

    “Most forage experts believe the economic issues related to pollen flow between genetically engineered and non-genetically engineered crops can be resolved peacefully without resorting to steps that are extraordinary or expensive.”

    It’s too bad that judges and lawyers don’t agree with most forage experts. It’s also too bad that forage experts have no legal authority, and judges do.

  17. #17 matt
    March 27, 2011

    Eric (&gregh, too)-

    I have never seen a farmer successfully sue Monsanto over cross-pollination. Monsanto has successfully sued a bunch of farmers over cross pollination. If I grow my own plants and save my own seeds, and you come to me and say, too bad, those seeds have my genes, you can’t use them, how is that coexisting?

    There will be no coexistence until farmers can legally save seed they grow, and companies like Monsanto are liable for unintended pollenization, instead of profiting from it. I feel if they don’t want to freely share their genes, it should be their responsibility to keep them to themselves.

    I’m just fine with GM crops. I am not fine with corporations using these as tools for economic domination, for which farmers have no defense and no recourse.

  18. #18 TL
    March 23, 2011

    The following paragraph is the most important point of this article. What herbicides do you plan to make the “new herbicide tolerant varieties” resistant against? Sounds like you will be using more herbicides in the long run.

    “One drawback to the application of herbicides is that overuse of a single herbicide can lead to the evolution of weeds that are resistant to that herbicide. The evolution of resistant weeds has been documented for herbicide-tolerant traits developed through selective breeding, mutagenesis and genetic engineering. To mitigate the evolution of weed resistance and prolong the usefulness of herbicide-tolerant crops, a sustainable management system is needed. Such approaches require switching to another herbicide or mixtures of herbicides or employing alternative weed control methods (COMMITTEE ON THE IMPACT OF BIOTECHNOLOGY ON FARM-LEVEL ECONOMICS AND SUSTAINABILITY and NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL 2010). Implementation of a mandatory crop diversity strategy would also greatly reduce weed resistance. Newer herbicide-tolerant varieties will have tolerance to more than one herbicide, which will allow easier herbicide rotation or mixing, and, in theory, help to improve the durability of effectiveness of particular herbicides.”

  19. #19 Eric Baumholder
    March 19, 2011

    The same problem is found among activist groups, who act as public relations firms for organic interests. If the ‘public debate over GMOs’ reaches a conclusion, say goodbye to a lucrative revenue stream. These groups are critically reliant on controversies and will not do anything which might be construed as coexistence/capitulation.

  20. #20 mad the swine
    March 19, 2011

    The certified seed growers and organic flower growers came to an agreement. The seed growers gave the organic growers sterile seed that gave rise to flowers with no pollen- thus eliminating the risk of gene flow.

    Wait, what? The industrial farmers force the organic farmers to use sterile seed, making certain that they can’t save seed from year to year (and so are dependent on industrial farming to supply them), and this is called ‘coexisting’?

    When patented GM crops pollinate traditional crops, it’s the traditional farmers that lose their crops. When traditional crops pollinate GM crops, it’s… the traditional farmers that lose their crops. Hmmm.

  21. #21 GregH
    March 19, 2011

    I second what Eric said. Most things can easily coexist, but if X defines itself as anti-Y, how is it possible for the antagonistically defined X to harmoniously coexist with Y? If I decide that Solanums are evil and find a market for my produce defined as having been grown a mile away from bad nightshade vibes, can I coexist with my neighbors if they want to grow eggplant, and why should my neighbor be responsible for my anti-solanums hobby? Although, some plant varieties have remained pure for a very long time, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think it is possible for them to continue to. I’m sure there are a variety of techniques that could be devised if people want to, like having a crop rotation schedule so no one is growing the same thing in a given area or something…I’d assume that’s already done. As evidenced by the many heirloom varieties out there, clearly different varieties can coexist, despite the chicken little rhetoric every time a new GE crop arrives on the scene.

    Though I can’t help but imagine that some anti-GMO groups really want coexistence themselves because it must be real handy for their commercial supporters to have the genetically modified bogeyman to differentiate their products and increase revenues.

  22. #22 Eric Baumholder
    March 18, 2011

    How are we going to coexist with a style of farming that relies on *not* coexisting as a crucial part of its marketing strategy? The coexistence scheme (‘partial deregulation’) for GM beets is widely regarded in organic circles as ‘a capitulation to Monsanto and industrial agriculture’.

  23. #23 Ewan R
    March 18, 2011

    Been a while, so here’s the regular disclaimer – I’m a Monsanto employee, the following comments represent my own views and not theirs yadda yadda.

    example, in the Central Valley of California, most conventional alfalfa farmers use diuron (class III) to control weeds.

    Do you have numbers on this? The USDA docs about derergulation peg herbicide use on Alfalfa at ~20% of farms, earlier USDA data (from the 80’s if I remember right) pegs useage at closer to 8% – although there was still, if I recall, a concentration in California (so most states would have been under 8% with California leading the way)

    As far as I’m aware pushing RR alfalfa from the environmental perspective isn’t necessarily going to work in the same way that it does for RR corn and soy – I’ve heard predictions (from folk unconnected to industry but who have farmed alfalfa /wave Eric) that RR Alfalfa stands to gain insane market share – far in excess of the current acreage which uses herbicides anyway (due to the ease of use and utility of roundup cf other herbicides) – so perhaps on the 20% acreage (or 8%, depending on who’s figures you use) you’ll get the EI benefit – however if you look at all of alfalfa production and end up introducing herbicide use to the other 80%, or a good portion of it, that has to be weighed in also – obviously you also have to weigh in benefits to the farmer and whatnot (first harvest is likely to be more productive under a RR system as compared to co-cropping oats, particularly if the price of oats is in the toilet) – now it could be that a 90%+ adoption rate of RR (bold predictions R us) still offsets the environmental damage of using class III herbicides on 8-20% of acres, but that’s not necessarily a given

  24. #24 Hinemoana
    March 18, 2011

    “which is widely used as feed for dairy cows and horses”

    I’m sure thats meant to mean ‘horses and dairy cows’, but I read it as ‘dairy cows and [dairy] horses’. Is it very sad that I laughed pretty hard?

    Then I wondered if there are dairy horses, and what their milk might taste like.

  25. #25 Sam Vance
    March 18, 2011

    A couple things:
    An herbicide or pesticide is toxic, but only at specific doses. If residues are where they are supposed to be per government standards, then there is no danger to humans.

    There are herbicides for organic crops as well, they’re just organic approved.

    I think organic enthusiasts and business people should reconsider their stance on GMO’s. You can have a GM variety of a certain crop that doesn’t require herbicide/pesticide or maybe a variety that needs much less, allowing organic farmers to plant without using any weed/pest control or a minimal amount of organic approved weed/pest control.

Current ye@r *