It's probably no coincidence that national organics regulations — 10 years in the making — are finally set to be unveiled by the federal government at just the time the public has picked up on the pratfalls of GMOs.
Ironically, food GMOs might be contributing to the current boom in organics, since buying organic food is the only way consumers in a label-less land can be assured of avoiding GMOs. On the other hand, many people see the tactics of biotech corporations as nothing short of an insidious campaign to undermine the organics foothold.
"Within a few years, all traditional food crops will be contaminated with GMOs, and there'll be no more pure food seeds to grow," says Bob Canard, an organic farmer in Sonoma, Calif. "It's a direct assault on me as an organic farmer."
Genetic pollution of organic crops has been documented: An early 1999 organic corn-chip export to Europe was tested and found to contain genetically modified corn, a result of wayward pollen. The entire shipment was returned.
Whose fault, then, does genetic pollution become? Some biotech advocates say the onus is on organic farmers to keep genetically engineered (GE) pollen out. No easy feat, no matter who's responsible. The Spanish government, meanwhile, has decided that companies producing or planting GMOs must contribute to a $100 million insurance fund intended to cover environmental accidents. Although it's a nice gesture, money can't reverse the problem.
For organic shoppers, particularly many vegetarians, soy is a favorite meat replacement — and soy is one of the more common GE crops. They can always eat organic soy, but what of pollen drift? GE crops, like other crops, are grown in the fields of this windswept world.
Perhaps worst of all is farmers' widespread use of crops engineered with a natural soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt. For 40 years, organic growers have used Bt to effectively thwart acute insect infestations. When sprayed on crops, Bt dissipates in a few days, but it is not to be applied within three weeks of harvest. To fight the European corn borer, which costs U.S. farmers an estimated $1.2 billion in annual crop losses, biotech companies slip Bt into corn so that cells of the plant exude this insect toxin. Bt potatoes, commonly used to make fast-food french fries for many major food chains, are actually registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as pesticides, not foods.
Because the engineered Bt insecticide is as permanent as a corn kernel, researchers predict insects will develop immunity to Bt within five years. By then, it is surmised, biotech firms will simply unveil the next generation of genetically engineered bug spray — leaving organic farmers without one of their few safe, natural pest-management tools.