DANFORTH, ILL. – On a warm September day on the cusp of harvest season, about 70 farmers from throughout the Midwest drove to a cavernous metal equipment barn on Harold Wilken’s organic grain farm in Iroquois County.
They came to discuss trespass and damage to their crops. They came to acknowledge their losses and try to figure a way forward.
Toward afternoon, after a farm tour and a hearty organic lunch, farmer after farmer stood up and stoically recounted what GMO contamination had cost him: $10,000, $15,000, $30,000. The losses among the farmers meeting here probably exceeded $100,000.
These are losses not covered by crop insurance, business insurance or government agriculture subsidies. These losses are not covered by the corporations that own the genetically-engineered seeds that caused the contamination.
A spokeswoman for Monsanto, the industry leader in genetically-engineered seeds, declined to comment until she received verification that these losses had actually occurred. She referred inquiries to an industry-funded website, GMOanswers.com.
Those gathered at the Wilken farm explained their losses in docked market value. When organic corn and soybeans raised with a premium market value are found tainted with traits of patented, genetically modified crops grown on nearby farms, the value of the organic grain is docked from food grade to livestock grade at a staggering financial cost. There is no legal authority to step in and prevent the loss from recurring year after year after year.
Unlike pesticide drift from nearby farms that can be partially mitigated with buffer strips, contamination from genetically modified crops can travel miles in the air and land invisibly in organic fields after all organic practices have been followed and that sometimes involves years of preparation.
“We’ve learned that buffer strips are hugely inadequate,” said Oren Helle, president of Organic Farmers’ Agency for Relationship Marketing (OFARM) based in Minnesota and covering farmers throughout the Midwest.
The farmer who plants GM seeds does not own the technology. Seeds and chemicals have to be purchased each year from Monsanto and other agrichemical corporations.
“In the organic community, we have to say to the Monsantos of the world, take responsibility for the losses you have created on organic crops. The patent owner of those seeds ought to be responsible for the damage,” Helle said.
A ripple of applause met his comment.
The difference in price between organic and GMO grain is significant. Richard Ritter with Flanagan State Bank, ran a price comparison between organic and GM. In 2014, organic corn sold for $10.90 a bushel compared with $3.79 a bushel for GM corn. Organic soybeans in 2014 were $26.61 a bushel compared with $9.94 a bushel for GM soybeans.
Wilken, host of the meeting, said he’s been farming for nearly 50 years. He signed his first farm lease in 1981 at age 21. But when he became disillusioned with chemical farming and wanted to transition to organic “my dad said he’d disown me and my landlords didn’t want anything to do with organic,” he said.
In 2002, he received a call from Herman Brockman, a genetics professor at Illinois State University who grew up on a nearby farm that was still family owned. Brockman asked Wilken if he would be interested in leasing 32 acres for organic farming.
That was Wilken’s start. Today he has 2,300 acres in organic farming.
“GMO contamination has cost us a lot over the years,” Wilken said. “When we ship a load of grain 3 ½ hours away and it’s OK when it left but on arrival it’s found contaminated, where do you sell it? What’s the loss?”
Wilken and other organic farmers talk with their neighbors who farm with GM seeds and chemicals and try to stagger planting time so grain matures at different times. All their equipment is thoroughly cleaned. Wind breaks planted with trees help cut down drift from adjacent land, but that is not enough to prevent contamination.
“Even GMO dust can get you rejected (due to contamination),” Wilken said.
The cost of GMO contamination means he gets a lower price for his grain, he has to shoulder extra shipping costs and he deals with extra buyer concerns about guaranteed purity. Litigation is one option he doesn’t want to pursue.
Another organic farmer, Dave Campbell from the DeKalb area, has experienced loss from GMO contamination and said, “This is a moral issue as well as a legal issue. It’s our land being trespassed against. We suffer the loss.”
Farmer after farmer told of having his shipment turn up “hot” at the point of sale and being forced to accept a lower price.
Even when farmers pay to test their grain on the farm and it’s clean, it can show up “hot” after shipment to a buyer.
Merle Kramer, marketing director with Midwest Organic Farmers Coop, said, “GMO contamination is more than an inconvenience. I’ve had to dump (contaminated) corn at an ethanol plan at a 65 percent drop in price.”
Oren Helle spoke about levels of GMO contamination that can be acceptable before prices are docked.
“But we’d rather have zero contamination,” he said. “We need a regulatory agency. We as organic producers stand little chance versus these big corporations, and these big corporations also buy influence in government agencies.”
The barn filled with applause.
Helle said U.S. organic farmers are at a disadvantage when competing with grain imported from foreign countries that have banned all GMO.
“We don’t want our industry dependent on international supply, but when 60 countries have banned GMOs, there is no fear of contamination. Can they all be wrong? Maybe we should talk about that. And talk about the health of our children,” he said.
Crop insurance was never designed to cover loss from GM contamination, he said. Those losses should be covered not by government programs but by the patent holders, Helle said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture supports the notion of “coexistence” between organic and GMO farmers. A spokesman for the department said a report, “Enhancing Coexistence,” looked at the issue and concluded there wasn’t enough data to justify establishing a mechanism for compensating organic farmers for their losses.
He referred to a survey released several weeks ago in which only 92 farmers out of 14,093 provided information on GMO contamination.
That survey showed Midwest farmers with some of the highest economic losses from GM contamination. In Illinois, 16 farmers documented losses that averaged $38,844 per farm from 2011 to 2014. Only organic farms in California had higher economic losses.
“I was on one of those phone conference calls on coexistence,” Campbell said. “But in the end, we take the hit.”
Here is the complete statement from a USDA spokesperson about GMO contamination:
USDA supports the growing organic sector through strong standards development, accreditation, and enforcement to ensure the integrity of organic products from farm to table.
USDA also supports coexistence–the concurrent cultivation of conventional, organic, and GE crops consistent with farmers choices and consumer preferences. The Department actively sought to bolster coexistence and, in 2011, convened the Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture (AC21) to examine how to do this, specifically including in its deliberations whether a compensation mechanism was appropriate for biotech-related economic losses by farmers, and if so, what type.
In November 2012, the committee delivered an important report to Secretary Vilsack (entitled “Enhancing Coexistence”) which made numerous recommendations to USDA on bolstering coexistence and on how the department should consider addressing economic losses incurred by farmers due to the unintended presence of genetically engineered material in their crops. The committee’s members didn’t reach agreement about the extent to which a systemic problem exists and whether current data was sufficient to justify establishing any sort of compensation mechanism, so they recommended that USDA gather data to quantify biotech-related farmer economic losses.
USDA began a data gathering process by asking organic farmers whether they had incurred such documentable losses as part of the 2014 Organic Survey. The data, released as part of the overall survey on Sept. 17, 2015, established the existence of such losses, extrapolated to total roughly $6.1 million out of $5.5 billion in overall sales for organic farmers as a group. However, it is noteworthy that of the 14,093 organic farmers, only 92 farmers, or 0.065%, provided information on biotech-related losses, while the overall response rate to the survey instrument as a whole was 63%, nearly 100-fold greater.
USDA will be considering the data received today along with other economic information on coexistence it is gathering in deciding on additional future steps. One step that is planned for the immediate future is the re-convening of the AC21 later this year for additional work on strengthening coexistence.