What do GMO-free zones mean for farmers and food?

How does California's 13,734-square-mile zone where no genetically modified crops can be grown impact the growers?

Earlier this month, Sonoma County became the sixth county in California to successfully pass legislation banning GMO use in local agriculture, joining communities in Santa Cruz, Mendocino, Humboldt, Trinity and Marin.

While this was cause for celebration for some, others are worried about the effect that GMO-free zones will have on the food grown and the land around it. Will more pests return? Will the zika virus become a bigger threat? What does it mean for farmers?

The problem is, there is a lot of misinformation out there about what genetically modified really is and what it actually does.

Jim Fraley, director of association management for the Illinois Farm Bureau, noted that when the discussion starts on GMO vs. non-GMO crops, it really comes down to the science.

“There has been no documented instances of a person or animal sickened or harmed by the consumption of foods or feed that are sourced from genetically-enhanced crops, vegetables, or fruits,” he told Food Dive. “Peer-reviewed science has shown these products to be safe, in many instances developed to enhance the shelf-life of products that can spoil quickly, or enhanced to allow farmers to use fewer crop protection products.”

Kent Bradford, director of the Seed Biotechnology Center at UC Davis, has been involved in opposing the movement for GMO-free zones in both California and Oregon.

“GMO-free zones have very little to do with actual gene flow or ‘contamination.’ If you look at the language used in justifying these initiatives, it is often filled with factual errors and emotional characterizations that characterize the anti-GM community,” he told Food Dive. “In fact, they are primarily a component of an orchestrated marketing campaign for organic foods and are intended to keep GMOs controversial and not accepted by some fraction of the consumer public.”

In Bradford’s opinion, maintaining fear of genetically modified crops is a way of increasing sales of organic products, and having GMO-free zones reinforces the idea that consumers should be afraid.

The 4-1-1 on GMO

What farmers understand but the general public generally doesn’t is that all crops are highly genetically modified from their wild relatives and all breeding involves genetic variation that is then selected and guided by the breeder.

“Changes introduced by genetic engineering techniques are not more dangerous than other methods of inducing variation, such as mutation, that are accepted as being part of traditional breeding,” Bradford said. “All of this was re-affirmed once again by the most recent National Academy of Sciences report after reviewing a diverse range of input and documentation.”

"[GMO-free zones] are primarily a component of an orchestrated marketing campaign for organic foods and are intended to keep GMOs controversial and not accepted by some fraction of the consumer public.”

Kent Bradford

Director, Seed Biotechnology Center at UC Davis

A meta-analysis of 147 scientific studies found an overall 37% reduction in pesticide use, a 22% increase in crop yields, and a 68% increase in farmer profits — higher in developing countries than in developed countries— attributable to the adoption of GM crops.

In contrast to the claim that more pesticides are needed for genetically modified crops, Bradford said that the insect-resistant Bt crops — genetically engineered to protect plants from pests — drastically reduced insecticide use, particularly in cotton. Herbicide-resistant crops have enabled wider adoption of minimum-tillage or no-till cropping systems. Virus-resistant papayas saved that industry in Hawaii.

In other words, he said, safety is not an issue with GM foods and many believe it’s actually more beneficial.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, pesticides can be the most effective way to control disease organisms. As a result, their use has become deeply entrenched in our lives. Consumers often reap the benefits of pesticide use with lower costs at the grocery store and a wider selection of food.

Nancy Kavazanjian, chairwoman of the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance, said she wished people realized that GMO is simply a technology that makes plant breeding more efficient.

“We don’t put anything into GMO crops other than DNA coding. When we do spray our crops for weeds, we do so with extreme care and precision, often when plants are very small, or not even out of the ground yet,” she said in an email. “We have to control weeds in order to get healthy crops, and we don’t want to till the ground to remove weeds because we want to avoid soil erosion. I always make it clear that we actually may spray more often for weeds in our non-GMO soybeans in order to control all the different weeds.”

For example, Kavazanjian noted that GMO corn with the Bt gene means there’s no need to use insecticides on corn and there won’t be ear worms because the corn can make itself unappetizing to bugs by producing the same natural pesticide that organic farmers legally spray, often several times in one season, on their organic crops.

“Further, there is no nutritional difference between a GMO or non-GMO crop,” Kavazanjian says. “Unfortunately, consumers are made to believe there is a difference because non-GMO and organic products come at a premium.”

wheat farm

Additionally, better weed control from GMO seed has reduced fuel, labor and greenhouse gas emissions significantly for farmers, while saving soil from erosion and watersheds from runoff.

“We get improved varieties and hybrid seed faster because breeders don’t have to prove their benefits in field trials or grow them out to identify unintended consequences of the crosses they’ve made,” Kavazanjian said. “Plant breeders use modern seed breeding technology to select the exact traits they want for the seed. And we can use this technology to breed more beneficial crops such as the high oleic soybean varieties that produces a naturally trans-fat-free oil.”

What GMO-free zones can expect

Gregory Jaffe, biotechnology project director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, noted several of the counties that have decided not to grow GMO crops don’t even have a large agricultural presence. For those that do, the regulation could create more work for the farmers, so it's not entirely "better" as some people think.

In California's GMO-free zones, farmers will be able to grow crops without needing to stagger planting times, build in plant buffer zones, or worry about pollen drift from nearby plants that might be genetically modified. These have historically been challenges for producers of non-GMO crops. 

“Farmers who are planting non-GMO crops may still have to use some of the old-chemistry herbicides to ensure a clean crop at harvest,” Fraley said in an email. “If they are striving for organic production, then they will implement limited use of herbicides and USDA-approved pesticides under the organic label will have to be used. Ironically, this is a commonly used trait found in many commercial GMO corn varieties.”

“Farmers who are planting non-GMO crops may still have to use some of the old-chemistry herbicides to ensure a clean crop at harvest.”

Jim Fraley

Director of association management, Illinois Farm Bureau

Kavazanjian, who has been farming with her husband for 36 years and who also studied agricultural and animal science in college, has never had any problems growing non-GMO crops in Wisconsin. However, she admits it’s harder to control the weeds in non-GMO soybeans, and it takes more management to harvest and handle the non-GMO crops in order to avoid mixing.

Agriculture could survive without genetically modified crops, Bradford noted, but there are always going to be some who are fighting for change. One side of the debate champions the positive effects for growers, while the other side feels they are a healthier choice and better for the environment.

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Filed Under: Sustainability
Top image credit: David Prasad