Organic farmers pay the price of GM

April 2016

While America wakes up and finds itself with a GM alfalfa pollution problem [1], and Spain scrambles to control its GM maize pollution problem [2], the UK has just found itself with a GM oilseed rape which nearly became a pollution problem.

Britain doesn't, of course, grow GM anything commercially.  The offending genes were found during routine trials of seeds seeking new plant variety registration.  DEFRA quickly recalled the seeds, and ensured that all affected plants will be destroyed by the company which supplied them.  Mysteriously, the seed was imported from France which doesn't grow GM oilseed rape either.

A grass going feral and becoming a conduit for gene contamination is predictable [1].  An invasive gene-transmitting weed from the other side of the world in today's globalised market [2] is something we have to start watching out for.  The possible pollution of our entire seed supply is simply stupidity.

The problems caused by GM contamination aren't abstract or ideological threats. 
Genetic engineers have focused their attention on commodities (soya, maize, cotton, oilseed rape, alfalfa grass) which are important export crops, and America has rushed to commercialise them.  Other countries have been less gung-ho and have imposed various restrictions on what GM they will or won't accept.  
"Time and time again, US farmers have lost literally billions of dollars through (GM) contamination incidents" (attorney George Kimbrell).
The biggest victim is America's burgeoning organic market, in which the economic impacts of gene contamination include lost markets, lost sales, lower prices, negative publicity, withdrawal of organic certification, and product recalls.

US regulators haven't tackled this problem, leaving the organic farmers themselves to bear the burden of avoiding the adulteration of their produce.

This has led to an absurd situation where overall organic sales in the US are going up, while the number of organic farms is going down (USDA data), and the even more absurd situation where America (the world's leading corn and soya producer) is importing organic corn and soya for its home market.

The reality in Spain is similar, with many organic farmers abandoning maize production because of the risk of contamination by GM MON 810 maize.

Besides genes, US organic farmers have to cope with pesticide drift from neighbouring farms which not only destroys the organic status of their crop, but means they have to go through a three-year transition process for organic certification all over again.  The damage due to pesticide drift has become increasingly common as the USDA approves ever more herbicide-tolerant GM crops.

With increasing consumer demand for organic and GM-free food, and regulators doing nothing meaningful to give them what they want, Americans are beginning to take things into their own hands.  A small but growing number of "GE-free zones" where cultivation of GM crops is prohibited are springing up (despite State opposition).


Ironically, it's becoming increasingly clear that GM is driving the world to embrace organic.  GM is also driving a healthy demand for knowledge about our food, including transparency with regard to content, source, production methods, and whether it actually is food.

We can help our fellow human beings on the other side of the pond by continuing to demand what we both want: simple, unadulterated, recognisable food.


  • Chelsea Harvey, Around the country, organic farmers are pushing for 'GE-free' zones, Washington Post 4.01.16
  •, accessed February 2016
  • Genna Reed, The Heavy Price Tag of GMO Contamination, Food and Water Watch, 22.09.15
  • Christian Gysin, Alarm as GM crops planted by mistake, Daily Mail, 30.10.15
  • GM oilseed contamination found in the UK, Thin Ice, Issue 38, December 2015
  • Bill Freese,  New study finds genetically engineered alfalfa has gone wild, exposing failure of "coexistence" policy, Center for Food Safety, 13.01.16
  • Transgenic maize authorisation must be rescinded to prevent crossbreeding with new invasive species, Testbiotech/IFOAM EU Media release, 24.02.16
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