Legislation Dividing Organic, Biotech Farmers

  • Organic farms are concerned about nearby farms that produce genetically modified crops. They fear that the genetically modified crops will cross with and alter the genes of their own crops. (Photo by Rene Cerney)

The nation’s agricultural seed companies are fighting local restrictions on their genetically engineered products. They say it’s the federal government’s job to regulate food safety. But critics say federal agencies aren’t doing a good job of testing genetically modified food for safety. They’re backing the right of local governments to regulate genetically engineered crops themselves. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Sarah Hulett reports:

Transcript

The nation’s agricultural seed companies are fighting local restrictions on
their genetically engineered products. They say it’s the federal
government’s job to regulate food safety, but critics say federal agencies
aren’t doing a good job of testing genetically modified food for safety.
They’re backing the right of local governments to regulate genetically
engineered crops themselves. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Sarah Hulett reports:


Genetically engineered crops are created when genes from other plants,
animals or bacteria are used to alter their DNA.


Critics call them “Franken-foods,” and two years ago, three California
counties banned farmers from growing genetically altered crops. That
alarmed the agribusiness industry, and now it’s fighting to keep that from
happening elsewhere.


So far, the industry successfully lobbied 14 states to pass laws preventing
their local governments from putting restrictions on engineered crops.
Four other states are considering similar measures.


Jim Byrum is with the Michigan Agri-Business Association.


“Frankly, it’s pretty frustrating for us to look at some of the rumors that
are floating around about what happens with new technology. It’s
reduced pesticide use; it’s reduced producer expense in production. It’s
done all sorts of things.”


Genetically engineered seeds are created in the laboratories of big seed
companies like Monsanto and DuPont. The modified plants can produce
higher-yield crops that make their own insecticides, or tolerate crop-
killing problems such as drought or viruses.


Proponents of the technology say genetically altered crops have the
potential to feed the world more efficiently, and they say it’s better for
the environment. That’s because the crops can be grown with fewer
polluting pesticides, but critics say not enough is known yet about
engineered crops’ long-term ecological impact, or on the health of
people who eat them.


(Sound of farm)


Michelle Lutz is among the skeptics. She and her husband run an 80-
acre organic farm north of Detroit. She’s watching about a dozen head of
the beef cattle she’s raising. They’re feeding on cobs of organic corn
grown several yards away.


“I’m surrounded by conventional farmers. The farmers right over here to
my east – they’re good people, and I don’t think they would intentionally
do anything to jeopardize me, but they are growing genetically modified
corn.”


Lutz worries that pollen from genetically modified corn from those
nearby fields could make its way to her corn plants – and contaminate
her crop by cross-breeding with it. Lutz says people buy produce from
her farm because they trust that it’s free from pesticides, because it’s
locally grown, and because it has not been genetically altered. She says
she shares her customers’ concerns about the safety of engineered foods.


Lutz says letting local governments create zones that don’t allow
genetically engineered crops would protect organic crops from
contamination.


But Jim Byrum of the Michigan Agri-Business Association says no
township or county should be allowed to stop farmers from growing
genetically modified crops. He says every engineered seed variety that’s
on the market is extensively tested by federal agencies.


“Frankly, that evaluation system exists at the federal level. There’s
nothing like that at the state level, and there’s certainly nothing like that
at the local level. We want to have decisions on new technology, new
seed, based on science as opposed to emotion.”


Critics say the federal government’s evaluation of genetically modified
crops is not much more than a rubber stamp. The FDA does not approve
the safety of these crops. That’s just wrong.


Doug Gurian-Sherman is a former advisor on food biotechnology for the
Food and Drug Administration.


“It’s a very cursory process. At the end of it, FDA says we recognize that
you, the company, has assured us that this crop is safe, and remind you
that it’s your responsibility to make sure that’s the case, and the data is
massaged – highly massaged – by the company. They decide what tests
to do, they decide how to do the tests. It’s not a rigorous process.”


Gurian-Sherman says local governments obviously don’t have the
resources to do their own safety testing of engineered foods, but he says
state lawmakers should not allow the future of food to be dictated by
powerful seed companies. He says local governments should be able to
protect their growers and food buyers from the inadequacies of federal
oversight.


For the GLRC, I’m Sarah Hulett.

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