Shifting Ground

Bans on genetically modified crops create uncertainty for farmers.

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Steve Glass grows alfalfa along with some wheat, barley and a few other crops on 150 acres outside Medford. “I’ve done this all my life,” he says. “I farmed with my father until he passed away about five years ago. Now my daughter farms with me. It’s a family business.”

But Glass is not sure how the family business can withstand the unavoidable loss of 40% of its alfalfa fields next year. With the ban on genetically modified organisms in Jackson County, passed by voters last spring, Glass will be required to plow up the prolific fields he planted with seeds of alfalfa engineered to withstand the herbicide glyphosate, aka Roundup.

All farmers in the county have a May deadline to eliminate any genetically modified crops on their land, but the alfalfa growers stand to lose the most. Alfalfa is a perennial that produces for up to eight to ten years before fields need to be replanted. It takes a year or more to reestablish production from a new planting. Nearly half of the 60 acres grown by Glass and his daughter is GM alfalfa.

“That’s a pretty big loss to our income,” Glass says. “I don’t see how I’m going to be able to sustain having my daughter continue to work the farm with me. There’s no way that we can both take that kind of a cut.”

Oregon has been on the front lines in the conflict over GM crops since 2013, when the discovery of an unapproved strain of genetically engineered wheat in Eastern Oregon touched off a brief international panic. Japan and South Korea stopped buying U.S. grain until tests found no traces of the GM variety anywhere else in the American supply. Questions about the technology have continued to rile Oregonians. Voters in two Oregon counties, Jackson and Josephine, have passed local measures banning GM crops. Measure 92, a statewide initiative on the November ballot, would require the labeling of food made with genetically modified organisms.

Farmers such as Glass must now figure out how to walk a tightrope — not just those who have sunk money and labor into growing GM crops, but also those who want to have the option to do so in the future because they see the technology as an important way to increase yields and profits. To move forward, these growers will have to address public fear of the technology and find ways to convincingly respond to concerns about the risks that it presents. If not, mistrust and negative public opinion could make it more difficult, expensive and uncomfortable for farmers to grow GM crops.

The issue has, to some extent, pitted farmer against farmer, with organic growers in particular speaking up about the need for mandatory GMO labeling and tighter restrictions on where and how GM crops are allowed to be grown. Dozens of farmers in Oregon have backed the county initiatives banning GM crops and are supporting Measure 92, the statewide food-labeling mandate.

Ivan Maluski, a farmer in Linn County and director of Friends of Family Farmers, a nonprofit that advocates for “socially responsible” agriculture, says that regulation of GM crops is too lax, particularly when it comes to making sure genetically engineered plants or genes don’t spread into crops grown for sale to buyers who demand products free of GM ingredients. As it stands, growers in Oregon and across the U.S. can’t be sure that neighboring farms won’t be planted with GM crops that could send pollen into their fields.

“Once the federal government has deregulated a [genetically engineered] crop, it’s basically the Wild West,” Maluski says. “There’s nothing to protect farmers whose markets demand GE-free crops.”

The discovery of unapproved GM wheat growing in Eastern Oregon last year is just one of many cases demonstrating that the risk is not just theoretical. Last September a Washington hay farmer had his alfalfa crop rejected by a broker whose tests revealed traces of the Roundup Ready pesticide resistance gene. In 2006 ecologists found herbicide resistance genes in wild grasses growing downwind of an Oregon Department of Agriculture control area for experimental plots of genetically modified creeping bent grass.

The drive to ban GM agriculture in Jackson County got rolling because of alarm about the potential for cross-pollination. Syngenta, a Swiss biotechnology company, had been growing genetically modified sugar beets in the county for years, but local seed growers didn’t find out until 2012. The local farmers tried to work out an agreement with the company on voluntary rules to minimize the risk of cross-pollination, but after about five months, Syngenta’s representatives stopped participating last June. Less than a week later, vandals destroyed the modified beets on two of Syngenta’s fields near Ashland. The company estimated its loss at $1 million.

In light of these actions, farmers who have embraced GM technology feel threatened. They tend to view the labeling measure as part of a strategy to squelch the technology by making it too costly and burdensome for farmers to grow GM crops. “There seems to be a plethora of actions to make people fear them, or make people quit growing them,” says Barry Bushue, a nursery and berry grower near Boring and president of the Oregon Farm Bureau. “It’s easier to sell fear than it is facts and science. That’s the biggest challenge we face.”

The Oregon Farm Bureau opposes the addition of new regulations on GM crops, and Bushue says voluntary agreements between Willamette Valley farmers and seed companies have proven they can minimize the risk of cross-pollination without oversight by the Department of Agriculture.

Maluski agrees that voluntary agreements have worked in the Willamette Valley, but says the Jackson County experience shows that farmers can’t always count on the voluntary approach. “Labeling does not tell growers what they can and cannot grow,” he adds. The measure, he asserts, would be a net benefit to Oregon agriculture by making it clear to consumers which Oregon products are free of genetically modified ingredients. 

Most of Oregon’s agricultural output — including its wheat, fruit, nuts, wine grapes and wild-caught fisheries — is not made with GM technology. The labeling requirement, he says, would mostly affect large-scale Midwestern growers of corn and soybeans used to make processed foods.

To make room for all types of farming, Maluski says state lawmakers need to give the Oregon Department of Agriculture authority to regulate genetically modified crops. His organization would like to have a state process that establishes distances required to prevent cross-pollination and isolation areas where no GM crops are allowed.

Uncertainty has become a problem for farmers on both sides of the debate. Those who want to use GM technology have no way of knowing what citizen initiatives and legal liabilities they might face in the months ahead. Growers who need to maintain GM-free seeds and crops aren’t sure how they can minimize that risk. Co-existence is possible, but the legislature will probably have to step in and mediate a solution. Lawmakers could start by giving some compensation to Jackson County alfalfa growers who are forced to destroy crops. And they could build on the voluntary agreements that have worked well in the Willamette Valley to prevent genetically modified plants from mixing with conventional products.

Glass, the Jackson County alfalfa grower, doesn’t have much hope for a quick solution. He figures he’ll have to start plowing up his investment by Thanksgiving time to get the job done before the deadline. There’s talk of lawsuits challenging the ban on GM crops. “Even if there is, it’s not going to come soon enough to do me any good,” Glass says. “I’ve got some decisions to make. It’s going to be pretty tough.”

Genetically engineered crops have proven safer than opponents feared. But they have also proven less of a boon for farmers than sometimes claimed by advocates. It’s still not clear, for instance, whether herbicide-resistant crops reliably boost yields. The evidence is mixed, economists with the United States Department of Agriculture concluded in a recent review.

Crops engineered to withstand glyphosate helped drive the spread of weeds that can’t be killed with that herbicide. GM crops aren’t entirely to blame, however. Herbicide-resistant weeds were emerging to plague farmers in the 1970s, decades before the arrival of GM crops. The problem is driven by growers who rely too heavily on a single herbicide, giving weeds repeated chances to evolve resistance.

Measured by environmental impact, GM crops have actually lightened the ecological footprint of some farming operations. Since corn growers began planting GM varieties engineered to resist insect attack, insecticide use on corn farms has fallen substantially (down to 0.02 pounds per acre in 2010 compared with 0.21 pounds per acre in 1995, according to the USDA). Using chemicals to control weeds on herbicide-resistant crops is not just cheaper but also generally less environmentally damaging than plowing and tilling, which erode topsoil and release carbon dioxide.

Trustworthy scientific organizations around the world — the World Health Organization, the National Academy of Sciences — have expounded on the safety of eating foods made with genetically modified plants. 

Oregon Farm Bureau president Barry Bushue says growers who want to use GM technology need to engage with the public about the benefits. People may doubt the motives of global agribusiness corporations, but they trust farmers, he says. “It’s going to be important for us to provide good, sound scientific information about what GE is and what it isn’t.”