The signs of spring have arrived, even in the frozen north. I’ve seen glimpses of gravel in my snow-covered driveway. I have my first leak in the ceiling from the ice dam caused by alternate hours of thawing and freezing on my metal roof. And, best of all, the seed catalogues have been arriving in droves.
I’ve been a gardener for years, interested in moderately healthy eating but certainly not a purist. The first catalogue I received was from Gurney’s… one of the old-name companies that I turned to years ago when my children were small. Because I’ve gotten more passionate about my longtime interest in organic and sustainable agriculture, I also now receive such catalogues as Seeds of Change and Abundant Life Seeds. Like any good homesteader, I start reading them on my way back up to the house from the mailbox. For a few glorious moments, my natural optimism outshines the snowflakes, and I sit down with a cup of coffee and a yellow pad to plan the garden of my dreams. Enter reality…
The first hint of a problem came from The Safe Seed Pledge in the Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalogue. It reads, in part, “We pledge that we do not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered or modified seed or plants.” (Does that imply that they unknowingly buy or sell them? How could that happen?) At Johnny’s invitation, I checked out The Safe Seed Initiative through the Council for Responsible Genetics. One thing led to another, and my dreaming turned to a nightmare. The mental headlines were frightening: While politics, war and economic collapse regularly top the news, a much more sinister problem looms on the horizon… Genetically Modified Organisms. What are the issues around GMOs and how is the court responding? Could I really be sued for growing my organic crops? Putting my overactive imagination on hold, I decided to delve into further research before digging any dirt.
Now maybe I’m the only person who’s like this, but I’ve never been one to worry about patent numbers on vegetables or flowers. I pick out things I like that are appropriate for my climate and soil, and send in the order. As a former dairy and crop farmer, I knew about breeding lines in cattle, hybrid corn, and pesticides. But we had a small family farm before the days of genetic engineering, and the vegetable garden was a separate part of life anyway. We shared garden seed and tools, and saved seed from year to year. Occasionally, we’d have field corn cross-pollinate the sweet corn, but it wasn’t a big deal. And the closest we ever came to worrying about a lawsuit was when our cows got out in the road.
Last year… with the purchase of a new homestead and a return to serious gardening after a two-decade detour… I committed to focusing on organic seeds. But I still functioned in a bit of a bubble. As I started analyzing this year’s catalogues, that bubble burst. I found obvious patent numbers, patents pending, things marked PVP, and items with special code numbers to decipher. My reading skills and college education were little help in finding explanations for all of these within some of the catalogues themselves. That led me back to the Internet and deeper into the Pandora’s box known as GMOs. Now, my garden planning has turned into a social cause.
In the interest of fairness—or the closest I can come on this issue—let’s start with the arguments generally given in favor of GMOs. Farmers have always sought to improve their crops and livestock. Historically that was done through fairly natural processes: seed saving, selective breeding, and, later, hybridization. It made good business sense for some of those folks to seek patents or plant variety protection on their best products.
Now science has made it possible to take the next step… to mechanically transfer genetic material between genera, families, and kingdoms. Advocates promise that the ever-increasing number of GMOs will increase the world food supply, decrease the use of pesticides, create products with increased health benefits, and allow successful agriculture in areas of the world plagued by drought and other environmental challenges. And the folks developing and marketing those GMOs have, understandably, sought patent protection for their work. It sounds pretty noble on the surface, particularly to anyone who truly cares about world hunger and the future of our planet.
So what are the concerns and the implications for those of us who choose to homestead? The first concern, in my mind, is who is in control. “With the purchase of Seminis in January of 2005, Monsanto is now estimated to control between 85 and 90 percent of the U.S. nursery market.” (Countryside & Small Stock Journal, “The Gardening Game” by Jerri Cook.) This same corporate giant is the leading producer of genetically engineered seed, generally holding over 75% of the market share. What is their motivation? I am, by nature, a trusting person, but I’m also old enough to remember saccharin, Agent Orange and PCBs. I’ve read the lists of Monsanto’s corporate spin-offs and mergers and international legal cases. Does winning cases prove altruism or innocence? Hmm.
Then there are the health and environmental issues. Every report that I can find speaks of the lack of long-term testing associated with genetically engineered organisms. We simply don’t know what the health effects will be over time. And the three federal agencies involved in regulation – the United States Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration have glitches in the systems. Sometimes their authority overlaps; sometimes there are gaps. The recent peanut butter recall is a great example of how quickly regulatory issues can get out of hand.
We also can’t control the spread of genetic material once it’s released into the environment, so how can we pretend to know how plants will develop. Will we end up with superweeds similar to the superbugs that are resisting our medical antibiotics? Will we have native vegetation that is unable to reproduce fruit? Hmm.
Issues of environmental spread bring up contamination and liability concerns. Documented cases of crop and seed contamination from GMOs are growing rapidly, as are the international legal cases that go along with them. “Since the mid-1990s, it [Monsanto] has sued some 150 US farmers for patent infringement in connection with its GE seed.” (Wikipedia, Monsanto). Generally these suits have related to seed saving, but in some cases farmers have simply been found to have evidence of plants containing patented genes in their fields.
Organic certification can also be threatened by contamination. “Contamination of corn is the biggest concern for those trying to sell [and eat] biotech-free food… Organic dairy farmer Albert Straus, who started testing corn fed to his 300-head dairy herd more than a year ago, and found about one-third has been contaminated, now tests every lot of grain he buys.” (Reuters, U.S. organic food industry fears GMO contamination.) So, are you prepared to fight a lawsuit if, somehow, your neighbor’s GMO corn gets into the corn on your homestead? If your organic certification is threatened by genetic encroachment from a nearby field, will you get legal protection or relief? Hmm.
This brings me to the concern I think of as truth and equity. I, for one, am happy to support organic farming as both a producer and a consumer. I know that if we want to sell organic fruits, vegetables, or livestock products from our homestead, there are mandatory guidelines we must follow. This seems only fair. Although organic labels can be confusing, food is labeled and the guidelines for each category are available to the public. And the growth in the market for these products is evidence of their importance to people all over the world.
On the other hand, labeling of genetically modified foods is not mandatory in some countries, the United States leading the list. In fact, there has been serious lobbying around the issue of labeling milk as hormone-free. The argument is that it’s confusing and unfair to the consumer and damaging to the producers who use the hormones. If, as the big guys claim, rBGH (recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone) has been found safe for human consumption and no difference exists between hormone and hormone-free milk, why not label things clearly and let consumers decide for themselves? Hmm.
So, what’s a homesteader to do? While it can be cathartic to rail on like David fighting Goliath, I really just want to plant my dream garden, sell a few extra vegetables, play with my grandkids, and live gently on their earth. I can assert my independence, but I can’t live in a bubble anymore. The New Farm, Farmer-to-Farmer Know-How, from The Rodale Institute, has a list of 10 Strategies to Minimize Risks of GMO Contamination. They include the following: know your seeds, know your farm, know your neighbors, know your neighbors’ crops, know your equipment, know your harvest, know your crop storage, know your truckers, know your records, and know your buyers. (James A. Riddle Organic Independents, newfarm.rodaleinstitute.org) Some of these are geared to fairly large operations, but some apply to all of us.
The idea of knowing your seeds brings us full circle. Read your seed catalogues very carefully, including the codes and policy statements. That’s not always easy. Johnny’s uses the inside front cover, first page, and multiple middle pages to tell me everything I ever wanted to know about the company and the products. What a treat. The Jung’s catalogue is a different story. The President’s letter and helpful symbols are prominently displayed on the first page. The Jung’s Philosophy on Genetically Modified Seed is buried on page 46. My longstanding fondness for this company has been a bit diminished, and the catalogue is going in the recycle bin as soon as I’m done writing this article… Transparency is one of my core values!
Don’t let your independent streak stop you from asking questions. Other gardeners, online sites, and the seed companies themselves can offer great ideas, regardless of what stage you’re in with your homesteading. The Gardening Game article I mentioned earlier actually started with a humorous but sobering phone call leading the author to recognize the corporate monopoly in the seed business.
Know your neighbors. The homesteaders I know are great at networking with each other, but less so with those big corporate farms we scoffingly pass on the way to the local farmer’s market. I’m blessed to be bordered by wetland, woods, and open pasture on my homestead. The neighbor up the road has cattle, but they water downstream in the creek that runs through my place. He didn’t grow one decent crop last year, but I have no idea what kind of corn he tried to grow. Maybe I need to visit with him at a time other than when we’re chasing his cows out of the road.
Who are your neighbors? Who’s upwind or downwind? What did they plant? What pesticides did they use? And how can you engage in a dialogue that’s positive for everyone?
I’m also redefining neighbors to include a wider circle of people supporting biodiversity and sustainable agriculture. I’m not a joiner… not a meeting person… not a politician. But I do spend a fair amount of time online. That means my circle of influence can be worldwide – one conversation, one person at a time. Maybe that’s a whole new garden I can plant!
Know your records. Ugh. I’d rather dig in the dirt all day than keep files on what seeds I purchased, where I planted them, and how much they produced. And I still like doing business on a handshake. But truth be told, I have to do better. My garden clipboard has already moved to my computer, although there’ll still be a water-spotted and dirt-streaked version, I’m sure. Filing shipping invoices and empty seed packets is now on the to-do list. Did you know that by simply opening a bag of corn containing Monsanto technologies, you may be bound to their Technology Agreement, valid even after you stop planting their corn? It may be paranoia, but I’m not taking any chances with my vegetable seeds.
When it comes to GMOs The ultimate responsibility is to know our values. How much of this is really important to you, and why? How much are you willing to read and research? How meticulous are you willing and able to be? Where is the line in the sand that you are unwilling to cross? As a teacher, I value knowledge and exploration and creativity. As a homesteader, I value independence. As a gardener, I value hope. As a mother and grandmother, I value the future.
I’m reminded of the first Jurassic Park movie. In addition to all the action, it offers a great think piece on the pros and cons of genetic engineering. One of my favorite parts is when Dr. Ian Malcolm, one of the scientists brought in to do an assessment of the park, is addressing park creator John Hammond on his lack of humility before nature. Malcolm challenges Hammond that the scientists were so preoccupied with finding out whether or not they could do something that they didn’t stop to think if they should. Later, another of the scientists speaks of the illusion of control.
I can’t control nature, or neighbors, or GMOs. But I can control my choices, and I know what I should do. Starting this year, with this garden, I will only use organic seed from select companies. I will legally and appropriately save that seed and participate with others who do so. I will ethically steward my five acres, with a healthy respect for creation and the Creator. And I will continue the dialogue at every opportunity that arises. Those are my “seeds of control.” What are yours?