I walked out of the classroom and made my way down a few flights of stairs. It was one of those brief moments this spring when the sun came out and I let my mind leave thoughts of school and daydream about the coming summer. I had so many plans for my family’s dairy farm. The first thing would be to check on the tree seedlings I planted last year. As I walked across campus, my phone vibrated – it was a text from a young farming friend of mine.
“A seed company is going after my neighbors.”
“What did they do?”
“Planted genetically modified corn and saved the seed. Somebody snitched on them to the seed company and they found out today they are getting sued for it.”
Unfortunately this scenario is becoming more and more common across our country. With genetically modified crops, the company that created them has a patent on the actual gene itself. This has come to mean, in legal terms, that they own anything their patented gene is in. So a farmer cannot save seed to use next year, and if a farmer’s seed becomes contaminated with the gene through cross-pollination, they can be accused of “stealing” the gene. Certified Organic farmers like my family are not allowed to use genetically modified seeds, but we are still at risk of contamination through cross-pollination.
It is not an exaggeration to say that genetically modified organisms (GMOs), particularly crops, threaten the existence of the entire niche market known as “organic.” If we cannot ensure that our crops are not contaminated, we cannot ensure that our beef, dairy cows and chickens are fed organically, which means we lose the integrity of all our products. This means organic farmers are in danger of losing our property and our right to conduct business.
Organic is one of the last markets for small, sustainable, diversified farms. Organic farmers have fought for years to create the regulatory system, strict standards and layers of government and third party oversight, all of which protects our livelihood. If we lose that, we have lost what is quickly becoming the only viable alternative to large-scale agriculture reliant on government subsidies and chemicals.
As a young person who would like to farm organically someday, the threat of GM crops adds yet another barrier to achieving my dreams.
The ignored health risks of GM foods also concern me. According to the Institute for Responsible Technology, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) found that “‘Several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with GM food,’ including infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging, faulty insulin regulation, and changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system.” GM foods are not subjected to human test trials, and despite urgings by even the FDA for long-term safety studies, the government has never required them.
One of those ignored health risks was documented in the study “Assessing the survival of transgenic plant DNA in the human gastrointestinal tract,” published in Nature Biotechnology, which found that the Bt-resistant genes from the GM soy actually transferred to the human gut bacteria. The authors of the study found a very low transfer rate, so they concluded that there was no transfer at all. I find an acceptance of even a low transfer rate to be alarming. To my knowledge, this is the only study done on this alarming “side-effect,” so I cannot conclusively say that GM foods can seriously mess up a person’s digestive system, but I do want more research to be done.
Thankfully, I am not alone in my concern about GM foods. There are many people dedicated to challenging the government’s approval of GMOs. It is also becoming more frequent for me to meet people without agricultural backgrounds who are concerned about GM foods. People are letting their government representatives know their views, contacting the USDA to ask for studies to be done, and perhaps most importantly, choosing to change their own lifestyles by eating foods they know are not genetically modified.
Even more encouraging is that small-scale, non-organic farmers are questioning GM crops as well. I meet non-organic farmers all the time who understand not only the dangers of GM crops, but the extra expense of them. Apparently, there is something about a plant that can be sprayed with chemicals and still survive that makes it unappetizing to everyone.
For now, all I can do is live GM-food-free as best as I can and keep spreading the word. The farming friend who told me about his neighbors also plants genetically modified crops, but after talking with me and researching, I was happy to receive another text from him on a different day:
“I’ve decided to not plant genetically modified soybeans. And maybe next year I won’t use genetically modified corn.”
Smith, Jeffrey. “Doctors Warn: Avoid Genetically Modifed Food.” Institute for Responsible Technology. May 2009. www.responsibletechnology.org/gmo-dangers/health-risks/articles-about-risks-by-jeffrey-smith/Doctors-Warn-Avoid-Genetically-Modified-Food-May-2009
Netherwood, Trudy et. al. “Assessing the survival of transgenic plant DNA in the human gastrointestinal tract.” Nature Biotechnology. 22, 204-209 (2004). Published online: 18 Jan 2004.
Sarah Holm is a teenage Organic Valley dairy farmer in Wisconsin. She and her family (she is the oldest of seven) milk 40 Jersey cows and graze about 80 acres. She is studying political science at University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire and hopes to go to law school.