GMO Contamination Sometimes Not So Obvious
IOWA - In spring 2000, Greg Matteson was preparing documents for the annual inspection of his organic farm in Shelby, Montana, when he noticed something disturbing. The label on a seed inoculant called “Dormal PLUS” that he had used on yellow blossom sweet clover said “genetically modified.” Greg discovered the problem after he had planted the seed. “We were upset to say the least,” says Shawn. “The labels on both Dormal and Dormal PLUS were almost identical and the GMO info was very tiny and not readily noticeable.”
Hard to tell the difference between GMO and non-GMO inoculant
Matteson planted yellow blossom sweet clover as a “green manure” to increase soil fertility. Seeds are inoculated to introduce rhizobia bacteria into the soil where a legume will be planted to form nodules and fix nitrogen. Matteson’s seed dealer inoculated the clover seed to enhance nodule growth. The dealer knew the Mattesons farmed organically so he researched inoculants and found a product called Dormal, then made by Urbana Laboratories, which is now owned by Becker Underwood, based in Ames, Iowa. The dealer inoculated the seed shortly before planting.
When Greg’s wife Shawn picked up the seed from the dealer, he told her that he had run out of Dormal, so he inoculated the seed with a similar product, Dormal PLUS. The dealer assured Shawn that the product was identical to Dormal. Unfortunately, he didn’t know it was genetically modified.
Greg discovered the problem after he had planted the seed. “We were upset to say the least,” says Shawn. “The labels on both Dormal and Dormal PLUS were almost identical and the GMO info was very tiny and not readily noticeable.”
Lost organic certification, financial loss
The Mattesons notified their organic certifier. They checked with Urbana Laboratories who confirmed that Dormal PLUS was indeed genetically modified. The Mattesons lost their organic certification on the acres planted with the clover. “We had to destroy what was growing and had to go through the entire organic transition again,” says Shawn.
The Mattesons also had to deal with cleaning of equipment between their organic and now non-organic fields and keeping records. “We were 100% organic for a lot of years so there was extra work to keep it all separated,” says Shawn. “It was a whole lot of hassle and extra time.”
Overall, Shawn says, “It was a substantial financial loss.”
“Not the kind of people we are”
She doesn’t blame the seed dealer. “His mistake was as honest as ours,” she says.
Shawn also says Urbana Laboratories was very helpful in providing information about Dormal PLUS.
Now, the Mattsons are more thorough. “You can be sure we check the labels closer now to make sure we got what we bought,” says Shawn. Several people suggested that the Mattesons should have just thrown away the Dormal PLUS labels, but Shawn says, “That is not the kind of people we are. Integrity isn’t just the organic system, the producer has a lot to do with it also.”
Biggest threat: lack of knowledge about GMOs
Shawn believes GMOs are an increasing problem for both organic and conventional, non-GMO farmers. “I don’t think someone can assess the drift potential unless they are on the Montana prairie. I've had a rubber raft blow a mile away before I caught up to it. How far will the (GMO) pollen go?” she asks.
Lack of knowledge about GMOs, she says, is the biggest threat. “I think the use of GMOs that does occur is because a lot of farmers don’t even know when they are using them. We need some strong labeling laws that are obvious on the package or product. I believe that if things were required to be boldly labeled ”Genetically Modified,’ you would see a lot less use, and maybe even more questions.”
Liability for GMO trespass is also needed. “If the companies that produce these things were actually held accountable for their escape it would put them out of business,” she says.
GM seed inoculants
Becker Underwood, which purchased Urbana Labs, the maker of Dormal, sells a range of seed inoculant products. Three are certified by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) for organic production: Nod+ for Soybeans, Dormal-Alfalfa, and Dormal-True Clover.
On its website, Becker Underwood states that Urbana “was granted the right to produce and sell an enhanced (genetically modified) strain of Rhizobia for alfalfa in 1997. The identity is listed as Strain PC2 Sinorhizobium meliloti. The PC2 inoculant (in Becker Underwood’s exclusive Urbana Dormal PLUSβ’ carrier) is applied to the alfalfa seed prior to planting. Studies have shown that the bacteria do not migrate to the foliage part of the alfalfa. The EPA verified that the strain was safe after evaluating 8 years of laboratory and field studies.”
Further, Becker Underwood states that it “will use these new techniques with other rhizobia strains for other legumes as the technology proves itself. We will fully evaluate all strains in conjunction with universities and the EPA before releasing the strains, and will label all strains that are genetically engineered.”
US Patent Office rejects Monsanto’s GM crop patents
In July, the US Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) rejected four patents held by Monsanto involving methods by which genes from one organism are inserted into another.
The PTO’s decision resulted from the efforts of the Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT), who challenged Monsanto’s patents because it said the biotech giant is using them to harass, intimidate, sue—and in some cases literally bankrupt—American farmers.
PUBPAT says, “Monsanto has filed dozens of patent infringement lawsuits asserting the four challenged patents against American farmers, many of whom are unable to hire adequate representation to defend themselves in court. The crime these farmers are accused of is nothing more than saving seed from one year’s crop to replant the following year, something farmers have done since the beginning of time.”
“We are extremely pleased that the Patent Office has agreed with us that Monsanto does not deserve these patents that it has used to unfairly bully American farmers,” said Dan Ravicher, PUBPAT's Executive Director. “Hopefully, this is the beginning of the end of the harm being caused to the public by Monsanto's aggressive assertion of these patents, which threatens family farms and a diverse American food supply.”
According to Salon.com, if the PTO’s decision withstands Monsanto’s inevitable appeal, “it will have enormous implications for the future prospects of corporate ownership of genetic modification technologies.”