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Nebraska organic farmer bears costs of GM testing

by Robert Schubert
Cropchoice.com editor

(April 11, 2001 --Cropchoice news) -- David Vetter wants the biotechnology industry to keep its genes off of his Nebraska organic farm. Better yet, he'd like to see a moratorium on transgenic crops.

"It's their genetics. I wish they'd keep them," says Vetter, who grows corn, popcorn, soybeans, grasses and small grains near Marquette. "They've introduced technology that they can't manage and now I have to pay the bills."

Genetic testing revealed .1 percent Bt contamination of his 2000 corn harvest. Given that he had verified the purity of the seeds, Vetter attributes the problem to cross-pollination with transgenic corn on nearby fields.

Monsanto created Bt corn through insertion of the insecticidal gene of the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) to control the European corn borer.

Transgenic contamination is an increasing concern for organic farmers, especially those who grow corn and canola, which easily cross-pollinate. They're concerned about losing markets.

For consumers to expect a guarantee that all organic foods are free of unwanted genes is unrealistic. They can slip in anywhere along the production path -- impure seeds, cross-pollination, and contaminated planting, harvesting, processing and distribution equipment.

Besides, organic standards are production standards. Testing for any kind of genetic or chemical residue has never been required, says Annie Kirschenmann, of Farm Verified Organics, an organic certifier in North Dakota.

"Transgenics have introduced an entirely new animal when it comes to certification of organic," Kirschenmann says. It has created a situation in which this technology is trespassing upon producers, either through genetic drift or seed contamination.

What farmers want to avoid (and what has happened) are buyers rejecting shipments after finding even a small amount of contamination.

That's partly why Vetter has been evaluating the genetic integrity of his seeds and harvests since 1997. More importantly, though, he tests because seed dealers won't guarantee the purity. And now, he says, many won't even test the seeds.

So, if farmers want to guarantee that their crop is free of unwanted genes, they bear the cost. This has added about 25 percent to Vetter's corn seed bill, he says. Verifying harvest purity adds to the cost.

The bill for tests that revealed the contamination of his corn crop ran to $450, including a scan for StarLink that turned up negative, he says. It cost him $1,500 to evaluate a load of corn worth $4,000.

At the very least, he says, Monsanto, Aventis and others in the biotechnology industry should pay these costs.

What Vetter would prefer to see is a moratorium on transgenic crops.

The seed industry appears to be going in the opposite direction, though. It has applied to USDA to increase the amount of transgenic (gmo) material allowed in seed with the "gmo-free" label.

"This tells me that they've got something they can't manage," he says. "The longer the planting of gmo crops goes on, the worse the cross contamination will become. The StarLink fiasco shows that the industry does not have the ability to manage the technology."

Patented transgenic seeds that farmers have to buy annually at a high price are just another step in the consolidation of agribusiness, he says.