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Vermont Organic Farmers Assn. -- Policy Statement

Genetic Engineering in Agriculture - NOFA Vermont Policy StatementHome
Seed Saving and Organic Seed Standards
Ban the Planting of Genetically Modified Seed in Vermont
Mandatory Labeling
Genetic Drift
Liability for Genetic Drift
Public Notification of Gentic Engineered Fields
Terminator Technology
Insect resistance to Bt
Damage to Beneficial Insects
Insect Resistance in Weeds and Wild Plants
Human Health Hazards and Governmental Review
Food Allergies
Herbicide Resistant Varieties NOFA Vermont's Policy Statement on

Genetic Engineering in Agriculture
10/4/99
Overview
Current agricultural uses of biotechnology undermine the principles of organic farming. At its most fundamental level, organic agriculture seeks
to improve the long term fertility of soil and to care for the overall health of the farm ecosystem. In contrast, developments in biotechnology
through genetic engineering claim-but don't actually deliver-increases in yield and efficiency at a cost to soils, ecosystems and farm communities.
For example, one of the most touted features of this technology is herbicide resistance in crops grown from genetically engineered seed, such
as Monsanto's "Roundup Ready" seed. In this case, genetic engineering fails to meet the requirements of organic agriculture: herbicide resistant
crops promote use and dependence on herbicides which degrade the soil and threaten the health of ecosystems while eventually leading to resistance
to the herbicide by weeds. In brief, the products currently available through genetic engineering-like many aspects of chemical dependent
agriculture-address the symptoms rather than the causes of farm problems. Perhaps the most important and insidious aspect of genetic engineering in
agriculture is the way in which it undermines local food systems and food independence. When farmers depend on a small number of huge corporations
for both proprietary seed and obligatory herbicides, genetic engineering becomes another chapter in the ongoing destruction of independent family
farms and farmers' long term security. Instead, we should be promoting seed saving, soil improvements like crop rotations, and development of
regional and local food economies.

Although gene splicing-inserting genes from one organism that produce one
trait or mechanism into another organism-may appear to be a harmless
improvement on the long standing practice of plant breeding and selection,
there are radical differences. In all natural systems there is some gene
flow between subpopulations, but the rate is slow and the flow is usually
limited to a single species. Traditional breeding accentuates and
accelerates this process, but does not overcome limitations and balances
engendered by millennia of evolution through natural selection.
In genetic engineering, gene splices across different phyla and kingdoms
of organisms are possible. The long-term changes and results of this
genetic mixing are, at best, poorly understood.

 

Rebecca Goldburg, a member
of the National Academy of Sciences committee looking into genetically
engineered crops, notes, "Genetic engineers still can't control very well
where a gene is inserted or how many copies are inserted...And if you
plant a new gene in the middle of some existing genetic material, you can
screw up the function or change the way the gene works."

50 genetically engineered crop plants have been approved by the US
Department of Agriculture. This relatively limited number of crops end up
in products which represent a large amount of the total US food volume.
The most striking example is that nearly 60% of all processed foods
contain corn or soybeans that have been grown with genetically altered
seeds. The number of acres of agricultural land planted to genetically
engineered crops also grows at tremendous rates: 70 million in 1998,
double the number from the previous year. This year (1999), one fourth of
US cropland is covered by genetically engineered crops, according to
industry estimates.

As the "Green Revolution" of the 1960's and 70's painfully demonstrated,
agricultural practices that fail to honor the need to build soil
fertility, develop local self-reliance, use appropriate technologies, and
create long-term approaches to food production ultimately do more harm
than good. At this point, genetic engineering appears to satisfy none of
these standards. Similarly, the claim that genetic engineering will answer
the world-wide hunger crisis confuses the issues: the problem of hunger
comes mostly from a lack of social justice and distribution failures, not
production limitations.

The dissemination and promotion of genetically engineered seeds and
products primarily contributes to increased corporate control, ecosystem
degradation, further erosion of community food security and the loss of
sustainable farming practices.

Therefore, NOFA-VT takes the following positions:
Seed Saving and Organic Seed Standards:
NOFA-VT supports the development of more active seed saving efforts and is
currently drafting standards for the production of organic seed. One of
the most important ways farmers and other citizens can resist the negative
impacts of genetic engineering on agriculture is by saving seed,
supporting local organic seed companies, establishing seed banks, and
insulating farms and gardens from genetic drift (see below).
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Ban the Planting of Genetically Modified Seed in Vermont
NOFA-VT supports a ban on the planting and growing of genetically
engineered crops in Vermont. Our state has the opportunity to continue its
leadership in the development of sustainable and organic agriculture by
spearheading this ban. At this point, only a small percentage of our
state's cropland is planted with genetically engineered seed, mostly
animal feed corn. (About 5% of the corn in VT this year was planted from
genetically engineered seed, according to an informal Vermont Department
of Agriculture survey.) Instead of being faced with huge problems-both
biological and legal-after the flood gates have been opened, we should
enact legislation that protects the integrity of our local farms and our
citizens, before genetically engineered crops become pervasive. Indeed,
without a ban, seed saving and other individual efforts to insulate farms
and gardens from unwanted genetic drift (see below) may be futile.
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Mandatory Labeling
NOFA-VT supports the development of a mandatory labeling program so that
all foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMO's) are
prominently identified. One of the fundamental values within organic
agriculture is informed consumer choice. Similar to nutrition labeling,
irradiation labeling and country of origin labeling, GMO labeling would
give consumers control over their food-in this case, the degree of risk
they are willing to take with a new technology. The 1992 Food and Drug
Administration policy that allows genetically modified products to remain
unlabelled takes away this consumer choice. Another problem with a lack of
genetic engineering labeling is that health and allergy impacts of genetic
engineering foods will be difficult to trace or study. The protocol for
this labeling should indicate on all foods whether they do or do not
contain GMO's.
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Genetic Drift
The use of genetically modified organisms and seeds are prohibited practices for NOFA-VT certified farmers. Deliberate use of genetic
engineering products-or the inadvertent appearance of genetically engineered strains or markers in organic fields, feeds, and crops-is
grounds for decertification.

Cases are already appearing in which genetically engineered strains are outcrossing with organic plants. Biotech Reporter, a biotechnology industry newsletter, notes in the case of canola that, "pollen mediated outcrossing can easily carry...[genetically engineered] traits to other... plants." Another
disturbing example of this problem was found in Wisconsin where the organic food processor, Terra Prima, had to destroy 87,000 bags of corn
chips that couldn't be marketed as organic: tests of the chips had found traces of genetically engineered corn. The explanation for the foreign
genes in the organically raised corn was pollen drift from conventional fields. This type of outcrossing threatens a fundamental tenet of organic
agriculture.

Liability for Genetic Drift
Where does the liability rest for the way genetic drift infringes on
organic farmers' rights and livelihood? It is ironic and unfair that
corporations controlling genetically engineered seeds (such as bt corn)
are holding farmers liable for "illegal" seed saving and yet may be free
from liability when unwanted genetic material from their genetically
engineered products "drifts" into organic crops. NOFA-VT supports the
development of policy and legal statutes that hold biotechnology companies
liable for genetic drift and compromised organic fields and crops. These
companies should also be held liable for genetic pollution, such as
"superweeds" (see below).
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Public Notification of Gentically Engineered Fields
It is crucial to organic farmers to know where genetically engineered
crops are being grown in order to protect the integrity of organic crops
grown in the vicinity. NOFA-VT supports the development of a protocol to
be administered by the Vermont Department of Agriculture, where the
location and type of genetically engineered crops is made public prior to
planting. It is especially important that certification bodies, such as
Vermont Organic Farmers, have this information for decisions about buffer
zones and other safeguards of organic crops.
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Terminator Technology
NOFA-VT strongly opposes the development of the so-called "terminator"
technology: sterile, proprietary seeds and related genetic engineering
technologies. We support a total ban on the use of this technology and
urge the state of Vermont to make the use of terminator seeds illegal. New
Hampshire has made inroads on banning the terminator and Vermont should
also take up this effort and complete the ban. The sterilization of seeds
is an affront on one of the most fundamental relationships between people
and plants upon which all cultures depend. Knowing that this technology
was developed with major support from the United States Department of
Agriculture (USDA) is also cause for dismay. The permanent proprietary
control of seed stock, with mandatory annual purchases, only further adds
to the concentration of power in the hands of few giant agri-business
corporations.
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Insect Resistance to Bt
NOFA-VT is opposed to the development and use of genetically engineered
plant strains that produce their own Bacillus thuringensis (Bt)
bioinsecticides. Bt has been one of the few tools available against insect
pests for organic farmers. As currently used by organic farmers, bt is a
highly specific pest control that leaves no toxic residues and is not
widely enough used to promote pest resistance. However, widespread use of
genetically engineered crops which produce their own bt toxins will
quickly induce bt resistance in many insects, effectively eliminating one
of the few organic pest controls available. Current voluntary management
plans-which call for small insect refuges in hopes of maintaining
non-resistant pest insects in the population- are wholly inadequate and
not enforced. New proposals from Monsanto, Dow and other biotech
corporations to set aside 20% non-bt corn areas are also inadequate and
may do nothing to slow the rapid elimination of bt as a useful tool. The
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) needs to develop truly effective
strategies to protect against the rapid development of bt resistance.
Current estimates range from 3 to 15 years before bt is rendered useless.
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Damage to Beneficial Insects
At the same time that pest insects are moving toward bt resistance,
evidence is accumulating that beneficial insects are threatened by the new
bt producing plants. The form of bt produced by genetically engineered
corn and other crops maintains an active toxin. The most striking case to
date is a study conducted by Cornell University in which an alarmingly
high rate of mortality was observed in monarch butterflies that were
exposed to the pollen from bt corn.
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Insect Resistance in Weeds and Wild Plants
One specific case of unwanted genetic outflow that is of special concern is the potential for genetically engineered crops to cross with weeds,
creating "super weeds." For example, crop pollen from genetically engineered rape seed and sunflowers has the ability to cross with closely
related weed species. In Vermont, squash is likely to be at risk. Herbicide-resistant or bt producing weeds will have a powerful advantage
over other weeds and will quickly create problems for farmers. Wild plants-and biodiversity in general-are also threatened by the advent of
genetically altered competitors.
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Human Health Hazards and Governmental Review
NOFA-VT supports mandatory and thorough testing of genetically engineered foods for human health hazards. This will require a significant revamping
of the fragmentary and weak regulatory roles of the USDA, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the EPA. Under current regulations, the
review process for US corporations is almost wholly voluntary. The USDA requires no more than a note-from companies that have previously
field-tested genetically engineered crops and would like to continue or expand these plantings-indicating that safety precautions will be taken.
Although FDA guidelines call for full testing of genetically engineered foods, their review process is voluntary. The EPA asserts that pesticides
that have already been tested for human health safety must also be safe when produced by genetically engineered plants. All of these agency
positions are inadequate to assure the safety of food.
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Food Allergies
Life-threatening allergic reactions are a distinctly possible unwanted outcome of gene splicing in food products. For example, Pioneer crossed
genes from brazil nuts into soybeans to increase protein yield. Despite the fact that the development of allergic reactions in people was considered highly unlikely, FDA tests show just such a reaction and the soybean was removed from production. The potential for future negative
human health problems, that go undetected or tested for, is another compelling reason to reject genetically engineered food products.

Herbicide Resistant Varieties
Some have argued that the use of herbicide resistant plant varieties, such as Monsanto's "Roundup-Ready" soybeans, is a benefit to sustainable
agriculture because it avoids the use of more toxic, long-lasting herbicides. This type of "not as bad as the other one" argument is contrary to the long-term health of ecosystems and soils. NOFA-VT opposes the development of agricultural practices that are dependent on herbicides and other inputs at the cost of long-term soil fertility.