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GMOs worry organic farmers

Organic farmers Janet and Terry Jacobson say genetically modified crops are threatening their way of life. On their small Langdon, N.D., farm, the Jacobsons grow wheat, oats, sunflowers and millet without the help of pesticides, synthetic fertili...

Organic farmers Janet and Terry Jacobson say genetically modified crops are threatening their way of life.

On their small Langdon, N.D., farm, the Jacobsons grow wheat, oats, sunflowers and millet without the help of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or genetic modification.

The Jacobsons spend more time in their fields than conventional farmers, but their labor-intensive crops earn them a premium price in the expanding organic food market.

Organic farming became one of the fastest-growing segments of the nation's agriculture industry in the 1990s. Certified organic cropland more than doubled in the United States from 1992 to 1997.

North Dakota is the second-largest producer of organic wheat, with about 32,000 acres devoted to its production.

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All that's jeopardized by genetically modified crops, said Janet Jacobson, president of the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society.

The nonprofit organization promotes sustainable farming practices. It has about 400 members, most of whom are organic farmers.

What organic farmers fear is the pollen from genetically modified crops drifting into their fields and contaminating their organic crops.

Organic farmers already have given up producing canola because seed dealers can't guarantee their stocks aren't contaminated by genetically modified varieties.

The same could happen to organic wheat production if farmers grow genetically modified varieties, Jacobson said.

"This is a big issue for us because wheat is a staple in our production systems," Jacobson said. "If a Roundup Ready wheat is released, I expect there is going to be a lot of organic producers that will not be in business anymore."

St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. has applied for commercial approval of a genetically engineered spring wheat to resist its popular herbicide, Roundup.

The wheat, called Roundup Ready, allows conventional farmers to apply the herbicide and kill a wide range of weeds without damaging the crop.

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'Extreme caution'

Different crops pose different risks from pollen drift.

Wheat and soybeans present little risk of cross-pollination, largely because the plants pollinate themselves, plant scientists at North Dakota State University say.

Canola and corn pose greater risks of cross-pollination.

Still, no one knows exactly how great the risks are in all situations, said Theresa Podoll, executive director of the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society and an organic farmer near LaMoure, N.D.

"This is something we need to approach with extreme caution because once those genes are released, there's no taking them back," Podoll said.

Farmers have grown modified crops for seven years and yet questions about the risks and liability remain unanswered, Jacobson said.

"This technology is way ahead of the people who are using it," she said.

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Like most of the region's farmers, Tom Wiley relies on chemicals to grow soybeans and wheat on his Montpelier, N.D., farm.

Wiley said he's had his own misfortune with genetically modified crops -- despite never growing them.

In spring 2000, Wiley signed a contract to produce 15,000 bushels of nonmodified soybeans. A Japanese buyer agreed to pay a $10,000 premium because non-modified soybeans are becoming hard to find.

Come selling time, the beans tested positive for modified genetics, and the buyer went elsewhere, Wiley said.

The Wileys took their story to the North Dakota Legislature in 2001 and lobbied for a moratorium on genetically engineered wheat.

"I wasn't happy about it," Tom Wiley said. "I guess that's how we became so vocal about all this."

Wiley suspects that pollen from his neighbors' modified soybeans drifted onto his crop and contaminated it.

"Why should anyone be allowed to produce a crop that has the potential to contaminate other crops and destroy a way of life?" he said. "It leads to a whole lot of bad feelings between folks."

Growing blunders

In America's vast grain-handling system, there's little segregation of conventional and genetically modified soybeans, corn, canola and cotton.

Organic farmers and farmers contracted to grow nonmodified crops have taken it upon themselves to keep their crops separate.

Monsanto officials say they won't sell their modified wheat until farmers have a marketing system that segregates the high-tech wheat from conventional stocks.

Adding to farmers' and consumers' concerns are a growing number of blunders calling into question the agriculture industry's ability to manage modified crops.

In 2000, a genetically modified corn called StarLink, approved only for animal feed was found in the human food supply.

The Food and Drug Administration said the corn wasn't a health risk, but then released a list of 300 recalled products made with StarLink.

The list included taco shells sold through several supermarket chains and tortillas and chips sold through Applebee's and Wendy's restaurants.

The StarLink scare was eclipsed last year when Texas-based ProdiGene Inc. failed to remove stalks of genetically modified corn from a field in Nebraska.

The corn was modified to produce a vaccine for pigs. The crop failed and the field was replanted to soybeans intended for human consumption.

The government impounded the contaminated soybeans before they could reach the food supply chain.

"This is an example of how biotechnology safeguarding regulations are working to ensure the integrity of the system," said Bill Hawks, the U.S. Agriculture Department's undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs.

The Agriculture Department levied a $250,000 fine against ProdiGene for violating the Plant Protection Act, a law that regulates the transportation and planting of genetically modified plants.

The law requires that all remnants of crops modified to produce medicines be completely removed from harvested fields.

The USDA requires that pharmaceutical plants be kept out of the human and animal food supplies.

ProdiGene spent $3 million to buy the 500,000 bushels of soybeans and destroyed them.

NDSU takes steps

In early 2001, North Dakota State University was dealing with a less severe mishap.

Workers at the university's Agronomy Seed Farm near Casselton, N.D., had harvested a field of Natto beans -- specialty soybeans popular among Japanese buyers.

The university was selling the soybeans for seed to North Dakota farmers when workers found some "off-sized" beans in the supply, said Dale Williams, director of NDSU's Foundation Seed stocks.

The larger beans tested positive for the presence of Monsanto Co.'s Roundup Ready gene, Williams said.

The farmers were notified about the discovery, he said.

The crop grown in Casselton came from seed produced in Brazil. Williams suspects that's where the soybeans were contaminated.

NDSU has taken several steps to safeguard against other contaminations of its seed stocks, he said.

Among other measures, NDSU has implemented a testing program to prevent the release of contaminated seeds.

The university also has designated planting and harvesting equipment solely for its test plots of modified crops to reduce contamination risks, Williams said.

The mishaps, farmer Tom Wiley said, show that the agriculture industry and regulators aren't ready for the technology.

"I just don't have a whole lot of confidence they can control this thing," he said.

"They need to take 10 giant steps backward."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Jeff Zent at (701) 241-5526

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