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North Dakota organic farmers worry about biotech contamination

(February 6, 2001 -- Cropchoice news) -- Farmer Jeff Dewald is no fan of genetically engineered crops.

"I don't think gmo (genetically modified organisms) is a good thing at all," says Dewald, who organically grows rye, oats, wheat, flax, and other crops on 2,300 acres in south central North Dakota. He is also president of chapter 1 of the Organic Crop Improvement Association. "I think they should do more research before they go around polluting Mother Nature. The big issue is not what it does, it's what we don't know. That's why I feel there should be nothing less than 25 years of research."

Dewald is one of a growing number of North Dakota organic farmers who are concerned that widespread use of genetically modified organisms will contaminate their crops. Organic varieties aren't allowed to contain this material. If their crops are contaminated, then the growers take a financial hit when they can't market them as organic. North Dakota produced organic grains on 53,000 acres in 1997.

Lucky for him, Dewald hasn't had to worry too much about contamination because he doesn't grow the biotech biggies -- soybeans, corn and canola. In 2000, 55 percent of the U.S. soybean and 25 percent of the corn crop were genetically engineered.

But, his fortunes could change when Monsanto introduces Roundup Ready wheat between 2003 and 2005. "You can bet that within one year, the whole state of North Dakota will be in trouble with gmo contamination," says Dewald, who sells wheat to Japan and Europe. Both have declared that they do not want and will not buy genetically modified wheat.

More people in the agricultural industry are acknowledging the contamination issue.

"The widespread adoption of GM crops in the U.S. makes it difficult to ensure that grain is not being contaminated with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as it is handled and transported from the field to the end customer. Industry insiders even question whether the foundation (parent) seed for non-GM varieties can meet a 1% purity level," according to the November 2000 edition of Farmindustrynews.com.

"Our investigations thus far from the 2000 harvest lead us to believe that virtually all of the seed corn in the United states is contaminated with at least a trace of genetically engineered material, and often more," says David Gould, a member of the certification committee of Farm Verified Organics in North Dakota and California Certified Organic Farmers. "Even the organic lots are showing traces of biotech varieties."

He points out the now familiar StarLink corn fiasco. Iowa farmers planted 1 percent of their crop with StarLink. By harvest time, 50 percent registered positive for the genetically engineered variety.

As is the case with conventional soy, corn, and canola, organic crops have tested positive for the presence of genetically modified organisms because of cross-pollination, seed stock contamination, and the inability to segregate genetically modified from organic and conventional crops during harvest, handling, transport and milling.

Barring his preferred option of a ban on genetically engineered crops, Gould favors establishment of a maximum tolerance level for genetically modified organisms in organic crops. Currently, there is no universal standard. In North Dakota, organic crops must contain no more than 1 to 2 percent of foreign genetic material, says Brad Brummond of the North Dakota State University Extension Service.

In the case of corn, Gould says that if certifiers insisted on 0 percent contamination, then "we shouldn't certify any corn."

At the same time, Gould worries that propagating genetically modified crops year after year will lead to the presence of more and more biotech material in organic and conventional varieties. This in turn, would mean raising the tolerance levels. Whether the organic stamp of approval would then become something of a joke is open to debate.

Others disagree that the prevalence of genetically modified crops would mean raising tolerance levels for contamination of organic crops.

Tolerance levels for pesticides and other substances rarely change, so why should it be any different for genetic contamination, says Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association.

"As far as gmos are concerned, the genie has been let out of the bottle," DiMatteo says. "Even if we had a ban today on any further planting of gmo crops, we couldn't say that gmo characteristics won't show up in other crops. Gmos have contaminated the agricultural system. So, to be realistic, we have to set tolerance levels." The Organic Trade Association does favor a ban on genetically modified foods.

Contamination of organic seed stocks is of particular concern to Jeff Dewald.

In the past, he says, seed suppliers often refused to sign affidavits declaring that their seeds contained no genetically engineered material. Only since revising the language on the documents are the companies more willing to put pen to paper. The forms now say: "product name to the buyer, which to the best of my knowledge, is free of genetically modified organisms in the seed, inoculants."

Dewald thinks that farmers will need all the documentation they can get to avoid legal ramifications. This is especially true, he says, for North Dakota farmers who'll have to deal with the arrival of Roundup Ready wheat in a few years.

NC+Organics, a division of NC+Hybrids, requires that its organic seeds contain less than .25 percent genetically modified organisms. To prevent contamination above that level, says Division Manager Maury Johnson, the company tests the seed stock before planting it in areas far from biotech crops, and conditions the seed in a facility that doesn't process genetically modified seed.

Although farmers have talked about litigation down the road if contamination issues were to become constant and unavoidable, says extension agent Brad Brummond, what they'd rather see is a campaign educating growers of genetically modified crops about the importance of planting their crops far away from organic ones. (The debate still rages as to how far is far enough).

Jeff Dewald has a solution: "I think all biotech should be stopped until we have some answers."