Sowing Disaster? | The Nation


Sowing Disaster?

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A hundred miles east of the McLain farm, Laura Krause is standing amid her fields of corn, which sway with a refreshing summer breeze. Krause is one of Iowa's 500 organic farmers. Wearing a straw hat, with a sun-reddened face and lively eyes, Krause appears the very icon of the American farmer from the last century. Her farm is tiny; she farms a hundred acres of corn, broccoli, potatoes, kale and carrots, all of them certified organic.

Mark Schapiro was the correspondent for NOW With Bill Moyers on the
version of this story that aired on October 4. Research support was
provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute and The Center for Investigative Reporting.

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Mark Schapiro
Mark Schapiro is an investigative journalist in New York specializing in foreign affairs. In addition to The Nation,...

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Krause's cornfield varies wildly, with plants from four feet to others over six feet tall, a notable contrast from most of the corn in Iowa, which seems to spread for miles in tight walls of plants of identical height. Her field crackles with insects, and birds swooping in and out to eat them. Krause bought the farm here ten years ago, and has kept growing her home-grown seed, a variety developed by the owner of this land a century ago, by replanting it every year. She sells the seed to other organic farmers.

But not this year. In February, she sent her seed to a local lab for routine tests: Because she's certified organic, her customers want to know if there are transgenes in her corn. And sure enough, she discovered that genetically modified genes were in there. The test didn't tell her which variety they were, but she says they were most likely from Yield Guard, Monsanto's variety of Bt corn, which is widely grown in her area of Iowa. She lost her certification, and the price she received for her corn dropped by half--from $3.50 a bushel to $1.75 a bushel.

Now, like Olga Maldonado in Oaxaca, Laura Krause has transgenes in her corn whether she wants them or not. "There's no way for me to go into that field and look for the plants that contain the transgenes and deselect them," Krause says. "There's no way for me to sort them out, because they all look exactly alike. I can't get my business back, because I don't have any way to remove this gene from this [corn] population."

How did it get there? Corn pollen containing the transgene could have come from the local combine operator, who is supposed to clean out his machinery before visiting organic farms, or--most likely, she thinks--it came from pollen that blew in from a neighbor's field. All it takes is a handful of loose pollen to land on one of her silks, and transgenes enter the genetic mix.

But Krause does not want to sue her neighbor. Besides, corn pollen is known to travel as far as six miles by the wind, so it could have come from anywhere within striking distance in this corn-filled corner of the state. And there is as yet no legal precedent establishing liability for the financial damage caused by genetically engineered crops. Ron Rosmann, president of the board of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, whose own cornfields in southern Iowa were contaminated with Bt genes, says that cases like Krause's are only going to increase "as they release more and more genetically engineered seeds.... What we're unfortunately coming to is that zero contamination for corn is impossible." Organic farmers in Nebraska, Minnesota and elsewhere in Iowa, Rosmann says, have also experienced contamination similar to that on Laura Krause's farm.

Companies retain the legal right to enforce their patent-holder prerogatives over unlicensed use of their seed. And if their pollen happens to escape and fertilize crops in another field such as Krause's, there is no legal means for farmers to enforce the purity of their own varieties. Laura Krause, and thousands of farmers like her, are finding themselves in a legal black hole.

In response, a group of farmers in Iowa has crafted a state bill that would establish an indemnity fund to be paid out in instances of GE contamination with the hope that the bill will be introduced in this coming legislative session. In Congress, Kucinich has introduced a bill that would establish firm lines of liability for the companies that produce the "contaminating" seed, but at this stage it has little chance of passing. And next month, state residents in Oregon will be voting on an initiative that would require labeling of all foods containing GE ingredients.

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