Local growers highlight GMO food fight

Organic farmer Tom Willey of Madera’s TD Willey Farms likens the distribution of genetically modified foods as an experiment on consumers.Organic farmer Tom Willey of Madera’s TD Willey Farms likens the distribution of genetically modified foods as an experiment on consumers.Many of the fruits and vegetables we eat have transformed in one way or another over the last few hundred years. Today, using science, those transformations can take place in a matter of weeks.

Genetically engineered food, which occurs when a plant is infused with desired genes from a different species, has become a common part of the American diet since coming into commercial production in the mid-‘90s. 

Now, proponents of a new California bill would like consumers to know when that food is at their store or on their tableIf passed by voters in November, Proposition 37 would require food processors to put a warning label on their products indicating if they’re derived from seed or animals that are genetically altered in some way while prohibiting the word “natural” on food labels or advertising.

In the agricultural rich San Joaquin Valley, the effort has stirred some controversy on both sides of the technology.

Organic farmers, who are prohibited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture from using genetically engineered seeds and synthetic pesticides in their fields, make up a substantial number of Prop. 37’s supporters. 

According to Tom Willey of T&D Willey Farms, consumers today are basically just guinea pigs for a process that hasn’t been studied thoroughly enough for possible health effects. 

Proposition 37 simply gives them the chance to opt out of that experiment if they wish, he said.

“It’s a simple matter of transparency in our food system,” said Willey, who grows more than 40 different vegetable crops on a 75-acre patch just east of Madera. “It’s our democratic right to know what we’re eating and the knowledge of what we’re eating.”

While the federal government currently doesn’t require labels on most genetically engineered (GE) food, many supporters point to the logic of more than 40 countries around the world like Europe, Japan and India that already do. 

Mike Braga of Braga Organic Farms in Madera, said many countries won’t allow GE crops to be grown within their borders at all, much less shipped in from outside.

With large GE seed manufacturers like Monsanto and Dupont putting in much of the $27 million to fight the proposition, Braga said it’s a campaign centered on profits, as many of those same companies also produce the potent herbicides that are geared for GE crops.

“They actually sell more herbicides, not less,” said Braga, who grows around 40 acres of organic pistachios in Madera and also sells organic products for other farmers. “They’re producing a product that consumers like to avoid.”

Braga also talked about the danger of GE traits spreading through the air as seeds and pollen, contaminating nearby crops that up until that point may have been completely organic.

Growers and ag groups standing against Proposition 37 see the initiative as an added cost to farmers and food processors that will ultimately trickle down to the consumer. Some, however, say it’s just the latest ploy to discredit GE foods as well as the herbicides and pesticides they’re tailored to accept.

“If we can’t use chemicals, we have to figure out something else that will destroy that insect,” said Manuel Cunha, president of the Nisei Farmers League, which represents farmers in the San Joaquin Valley. “If not, the public is going to get third-world food in California.”

Don Cameron, general manager of the 5,500-acre Terranova Ranch in Helm, believed the proposition would end up inviting countless lawsuits against food processors or retailers who may lack proper food labeling.

Cameron added that the initiative goes on the presumption that GE food is somehow harmful, with supporters citing fears like cancer risk, antibiotic resistance, allergies, and birth defects. 

But growing both Roundup Ready GE alfalfa and GE corn for close to 20 years along with organic cotton and alfalfa, Cameron said Terranova sets the example of how safe they really are, a conclusion that the U.S. Federal Drug Administration and the World Health Organization have already reached.   

And despite what critics insist, Cameron said his ranch has also been proof that even the spread of GE material to neighboring crops can be controlled through barriers and buffers. 

“There are a lot of advantages,” Cameron said. “Greater yields, less competition for the weeds so we typically use less water. And the herbicides we use are more environmentally friendly, as opposed to others we have to use.”

In 2011, 88 percent of all corn and 94 percent of all soybeans produced in the U.S. were grown from GE seeds, while experts say as much as 40 percent of food products sold in grocery stores in California contain some GE ingredients.

Since 1996, more than 100 million acres of genetically engineered crops have been planted, although they still comprise relatively little of California’s farmland. 

Peggy Lemaux, a specialist with the University of California Cooperative Extension in UC Berkeley, said the major GE crops like cotton, canola, soybeans and corn are simply not grown on a large scale in the state.

She referenced only a handful of companies like Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont that produce seeds through genetic engineering. With most crops, she said, they can’t get as much bang for their buck.

GE alfalfa should be making headway in California, following a USDA decision last year to deregulate a strain that’s resistant to Roundup herbicide. But Lemaux said GE crops aren’t taking off the way other crops are since farmers can’t dictate how much they decide to grow.  

“They have to sign an agreement (with the technology company) that they won’t replant it so they have to go back and buy it every year” said Lemaux. 

She added that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration already requires labels for GE food if the nutritional properties have been changed in some way. In most cases, she said, the fruit or vegetable is only engineered for herbicide, pest, or viral resistance. 

Lemaux, who’s been studying GE food for about 25 years, will be discussing the topic during event put on by the Economic Development Corporation serving Fresno County on Oct. 2 at the Fresno Convention & Entertainment Center.