By Christine McFarland, Editorial Intern
Genetically modified crops were introduced to U.S. farmers in 1996 and have been readily accepted by farmers to wide levels of usage today. In 2011, GMO (genetically modified organism) varieties accounted for 94 percent of soybeans, 90 percent of cotton and 88 percent of corn according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Therefore with the excessive use of GMOs in the U.S. it is crucial for organic farmers to be aware of where contamination can occur and how they can take steps to prevent it.
“There are ways to minimize the risk of GMO contamination,” says Jim Riddle, Organic Outreach Coordinator at the University of Minnesota.
According to the National Organic Program (NOP) the USDA organic seal verifies that irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides, and GMOs were not used in growing the product.
There are a several key factors that if organic farmers pay close attention to they can drastically minimize their chance of GMO contamination. The areas of focus vary from knowing about the seed they purchase to knowing their neighbors’ crops and even the means of transportation.
Organic farmers have direct control over purchasing seed and it is important that they know exactly what they are buying. It is practical that they use organic seeds, however they may also use untreated seeds if organic seeds are not commercially available, explains Riddle.
Prior to purchase and planting it is essential for organic farmers to obtain statements from seed suppliers verifying organic and/or non-GMO status. Also, it is important to obtain GMO test results for all relevant “events” or modifications, especially for corn, soy, canola, cotton, beets and alfalfa. In addition, one should retain copies of test results, receipts, seed tags and letters from seed suppliers. Recordkeeping plays a key role in case anything would ever come into question on if it is truly organic.
Location of the crops in regards to neighbors’ crops and prevailing winds is another factor to take into consideration. It is important to speak with neighbors and know what they are planting. If they are using GMOs ask what GMOs are being grown. It is definitely something an organic farmer needs to know and it is up to them to ask, as it is unlikely the neighbor would share the information otherwise.
“Establish buffer zones, windbreaks and hedgerows to minimize GMO pollen drift,” Riddle says.
Also, he stressed creating good lines of communication amongst neighbors and to “let them know you are growing organic and non-GMO crops.” “If needed, post ‘Organic Farm’ signs along the border of fields,” he added.
Another important factor is equipment. It is important to thoroughly clean all planters, combines, balers, trucks, wagons, etc. prior to organic use. This is especially important when equipment is rented or a custom cropper comes in after harvesting a non-organic field.
In order to clean equipment, such as a baler where pieces of forage may be stuck inside, it is necessary to purge as much as possible. This is a means of cleaning the equipment by running through organic feed and having to sell it as conventional. All other equipment can be cleaned using water and/or an air compressor. However, it is important to consider where the equipment is cleaned to make sure it is still not going to contaminate the organic crop.
Prior to harvest, collect samples for GMO testing. If contamination is likely, collect samples on a grid pattern, going from areas with high risk to areas with low risk. Make sure to collect, store, and submit samples separately to determine contamination patterns.
“It is good to have samples tested for all applicable GMO traits,” stressed Riddle, “and make sure to keep records of test results and retain duplicate copies of crop samples.”
Storage is another key area that can cause contamination. It is important to carefully clean and inspect crop storage units prior to use. Also, make sure that GMO crops are not stored in the same vicinity.
“GMO dust and grain can contaminate non-GMO crops,” he says, pointing out how easy it is for contamination to occur.
Transportation can be one of those discrete ways for contamination to occur. It is the organic farmer’s responsibility to carefully inspect and clean all trucks, trailers and shipping containers prior to loading. Also, make sure that if there is a tarp being used that it is free of dust. Record and document the transportation vehicles or service used.
Recordkeeping truly is important and documenting your attempts to minimize GMO contamination can come in handy.
“Good records can be essential in establishing claims for losses, should contamination occur,” he explains.
In addition to the types of records previously mentioned, organic farmers need to keep good records of crop yields and sales. It is required for organic farmers to know the buyer’s contract specifications, especially if it is something beyond the normal organic certification.
“Know and follow the buyer’s sampling and testing protocols, and know if they’re involved in additional certifications, such as non-GMO projects,” he says.
Simply communicate with the buyer, especially on GMO contamination issues. Research and know the market-driven GMO rejection levels as there are a few inevitable causes for GMO contamination, including cross pollination, seed mixing, human error and weather events. There are high costs associated with contamination due to lost export markets, commodity markets at risk, the cost of testing and protection measures, as well as threats to organic.
“Two contamination episodes are LL601 Rice and Starlink Corn,” says Paige Tomaselli, Staff Attorney for the Center of Food Safety.
Also, there have been a couple recent incidences of contamination. In Nov. 2011 there was a seed farm with genetically engineered sugar beet contamination. Also, in Oct. 2011 there was a case of roadside canola contamination.
The risk certainly exists and organic farmers need to take the necessary precautions to minimize their risk of GMO contamination.