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Genetic Drift Threatens US Organic Farmers

Blown profits

Genetic drift affects more than biology - US farmers stand to lose millions

By Anthony Shadid, Globe Staff, 4/8/2001

WASHINGTON - Susan and Mark Fitzgerald have farmed for 17 years on the black
soil of the Minnesota prairie, a place ''where the wind likes to blow.''
They took all of the precautions they thought necessary to make sure their
100 acres of corn was organic, a tag that can double the earnings on their
yield.

The husband-and-wife team set up barriers of bushes, shrubs, and trees,
planted the right crops in the right places, and bought corn seed guaranteed
to be free of genetic engineering.

No matter. The Fitzgeralds found themselves victims of ''genetic drift,'' a
relatively new and disturbing phenomenon.

When the harvest came, they tested their corn. To their surprise and dismay,
genetically engineered kernels showed up in the hopper: a
pesticide-producing seed known as Bt whose pollen apparently made its way
from a neighbor's field, swept by wind or carried by birds or insects. They
had to pull 800 bushels from the organic market, a loss they put at nearly
$2,000.

''Everyone's wondering what you do,'' Susan Fitzgerald said. ''One can't
speak alone; you're barking in the wind. It's you against Goliath.''

The Fitzgeralds' story highlights a problem most recently brought to light
by the lingering trouble caused by contamination from StarLink corn. Across
the nation, the planting of genetically engineered seeds has surged since
their introduction in 1996, and now accounts for as much as a quarter of all
corn grown in the United States, including Massachusetts.

One effect - whose scope was unanticipated by regulators, companies, or
farmers as recently as just a few years ago - is that insects, birds, and
the wind are spreading biotech pollen to fields planted with conventional or
organic crops miles away.

As losses mount, the question is being asked: Who pays?

Some farmers say it's the problem of their neighbors, while others accuse
the seed companies. The seed companies look for help from the government in
setting more flexible standards. And the government points back at the
farmers as well as state courts hearing a growing number of lawsuits.

''We never really thought all this through,'' said Charles Hurburgh,
director of the Iowa Grain Quality Initiative and an Iowa State University
professor. ''Who would have known 10 years ago that this would have been an
issue? There was no reason for this to be on the radar screen at the time.''

The most common recourse for such losses - insurance - is one that's not yet
available to the nation's nearly 2 million farms.

Insurance companies say their policies won't cover genetic drift, the term
used to describe cross-pollination between biotech and nonbiotech fields.
That reflects not only the novelty of the problem but also a sense that
studies are still lacking on the scope of drift - how far pollen can travel,
for instance, and how big farmers' losses might be.

On one level, those losses are already substantial. Since 1997, the European
Union has effectively barred US corn imports over the possibility that
genetically engineered varieties unapproved in the EU have mixed with
sanctioned crops. That has cost American farmers access to a $200
million-a-year market. More losses are likely as other countries restrict
new biotech crops approved in the United States.

On another level, questions remain over the biological implications of
genetic drift for agriculture. Organic farmers fear that, given the
unpredictability of pollination, they can never guarantee a biotech-free
crop. Already, experts say virtually all commercial seeds in America have at
least trace levels of genetically modified proteins, just five years after
the introduction of the crops.

Federal regulations require buffer zones around genetically modified crops -
usually 660 feet - but that has already proved too limited. Some contend
pollen can drift miles before settling on another crop. Plus, there's the
possibility that seed gets mixed in storage bins and even combines.

''How do you trace where it came from? How do you determine the liability?
All of this is brand new and people don't know how to deal with it yet,''
said Joe Harrington, spokesman for the American Association of Insurance
Services in Wheaton, Ill. ''It's a brand new world.''

While no figures exist, anecdotal evidence suggests that cases such as that
of the Fitzgeralds are becoming far more common.

A judge last month ruled in favor of Monsanto Co., the St. Louis-based
producer of biotech seeds, in its demand that a Canadian farmer pay for the
company's genetically engineered canola plants found growing on his field.
He claims his crop was contaminated after pollen blew onto his property from
nearby farms. Similar lawsuits have been filed against domestic farmers, but
the Canadian case was the first to go to trial.

In 1998, cross-pollination was suspected of carrying a genetically
engineered variety of corn to an organic farm in Texas. The contamination
was not discovered until the corn had been processed and shipped to Europe
as organic tortilla chips under the brand name Apache. When testing revealed
traces of biotech corn, the shipment of 87,000 bags was recalled, costing
the company more than $150,000. The manufacturer, Terra Prima of Wisconsin,
chose not to sue the farmer.

Aventis CropScience, meanwhile, is the target of several lawsuits over the
mingling of its StarLink corn with other varieties, in the most publicized
case thus far.

StarLink, engineered to produce a protein toxic to insect larvae, was
approved in 1998 only for animal use out of concern it could cause allergic
reactions in people. It was later detected in taco shells, forcing a recall
of more than 300 corn-based products and an ongoing and costly attempt to
contain StarLink still in the market.

Among the tangled legal issues prompted by its discovery was a class-action
federal lawsuit filed in Iowa last year. The suit argues that
cross-pollination by StarLink has hurt farmers' ability to export corn and
to sell it to American food processors. A similar lawsuit was filed earlier
in Illinois.

Aventis has declined to comment, except to say that it remains committed to
diverting StarLink and corn mingled with StarLink to approved uses. But its
ordeal in trying to contain the damage hints at the breadth of the problem
genetic drift poses and the potential liability involved.

Different nations have set different standards for how much genetically
engineered material they will permit without requiring a label on food.

The European Union put the limit last year at 1 percent, one of the world's
strictest. Japan, whose labeling requirement takes effect next month,
decreed a 5 percent tolerance for products such as soybean tofu and corn
flour.

No tolerance is set for organic food in the United States, although levels
like those found in the Fitzgeralds' corn have led to rejection by organic
food processors worried what consumers might think. (Keith Jones, a USDA
organic official, said the amount of biotech material allowed in organic
food from genetic drift is on ''completely a case-by-case basis.'')

StarLink, though, receives no tolerance since it was not approved for human
use. Any contamination - one kernel in 2,400, for instance - is banned. With
cross-pollination possible and even likely, Aventis itself has acknowledged
the StarLink problem could persist for years, even though the seed was
planted on less than .02 percent of cropland in 2000.

''I know you are wondering, `Will there ever be an end to this?''' the
company's general manager, John A. Wichtrich, told the North American
Millers Association last month. ''Unfortunately, as of right now, the answer
is no. There will never be an `end' as long as there is a zero tolerance.''

Even with some tolerance, farmers and others insist the problem will only
mount in coming years with the growing use of biotech crops, whose planting
is expected to jump 10 percent this spring. Still undecided is how much is
too much and where consumers will draw the line.

Organic farmers, whose numbers have more than doubled since 1996, are
particularly vulnerable. Aware of the threat or not, consumers buy their
products with the understanding that they are free of biotech foods.
Conventional farmers face similar problems: For export markets, they must
worry about exceeding tolerances, like those in Europe and Japan.

''Once you introduce these seeds, they're hard to keep in one place,'' said
Brian Leahy, executive director of California Certified Organic Farmers.
''This technology does not respect property rights.''

The US Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency,
which regulate biotechnology along with the Food and Drug Administration,
say liability for damages is not a federal issue. Rather, the two agencies
argue, it should be decided by state courts.

The National Corn Growers Association says it has no policy. Traditionally,
farmers growing a crop for added value - organic, for instance - are
responsible for protecting that crop, said Susan Keith, a lobbyist for the
association.

But, she added, biotech crops raise ''interesting questions.''

She said there might be a scenario in which genetic drift is treated like
pesticide drift, a longstanding problem in agriculture and one in which
courts have ruled against the farmer or company spraying the pesticides.

Monsanto and Aventis, among the biggest players in agricultural
biotechnology, refused to comment on liability issues.

Loren Wassell, a Monsanto spokesman, would only say: ''We try to act
responsibly and we encourage growers to be responsible and to communicate
with their neighbors.''

But some farmers and activists say acting responsibly is not enough, and
they expect a US court decision soon to back up their contention.

''What we have struck out as a position is: You patent it, you license it,
you're liable for any contamination you deliver from it,'' said Bob
Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation.

A court case might look at issues of trespass, nuisance, or negligence, all
of which have applied in similar cases.

Because the area remains so gray, though, legal experts say it is far from
clear which way a court might rule - and the Canadian case suggests a judge
could rule for the companies.

Until then, farmers in Iowa and elsewhere are being told to take precautions
in the event of legal action down the road.

One set of guidelines urged farmers to avoid claims that their crop has not
suffered from genetic drift, that it's free of biotech material, or that
contamination didn't occur in the handling of the crop, all claims that
might be used against them if any of those statements prove wrong.

For Susan Fitzgerald, the Minnesota farmer, that may not be enough.

Next year, she and her husband are planting organic soybeans, which don't
cross-pollinate.

They're talking to neighbors, too, about a lawsuit. Still, they worry
there's only so much they can do to guard against drift.

''You can't tell the wind how hard to blow,'' said the 45-year-old
Fitzgerald. ''You're at the mercy of the weather.''

Anthony Shadid can be reached by e-mail at ashadid@globe.com.

This story ran on page G1 of the Boston Globe on 4/8/2001.

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