Sonoma County – Food & Ag Mecca
Organic and conventional farmers in Sonoma County alike have been expressing increasing concern about how best to protect their farms and livelihoods from genetic contamination for many years.
Along with allied environmentalists and a broad group of advocates and consumers, conventional farmers opposed to genetically-modified technology and their organic-farming neighbors nearly managed to ban genetically-modified plant cultivation in Sonoma County at the ballot box in 2005.
The decade that followed saw the transformation of much of Sonoma County and the North Bay into a multifaceted mecca of the food and ag movement. The local, organic and sustainable have all flourished here. Farmers, consumers and foodies alike read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma from cover to cover, and watched with horror as cardboard-like hamburger filler was added to ground beef in the film, Food, Inc.
We flocked to farmers’ markets, launched a farm-to-table movement and responded to drought and the Great Recession by investing in community and front-yard gardens. Older local Granges experienced a remarkable renaissance and The Farmers Guild was born, connecting farmers with foodies and advocates and thriving as a result.
Trailblazing North Bay farms, advocacy groups, innovative businesses and media projects have found fertile ground in Sonoma County and earned worldwide press and praise: Green String Farm, Tara Firma Farm, Singing Frogs Farm, Petaluma Bounty, WHOA Farm, The Seed Bank, Marin Carbon Project, CropMobster, Civil Eats, Made Local & the Lexicon of Sustainability come to mind with ease, and scarcely cover the breadth or depth of the movement.
Sonoma County has become known worldwide as an entrepreneurial hub for local, organic, fair and sustainable agriculture, a virtual incubator for farming practices and food policies which we hope will one day lead to a resilient and just food system which will feed us all.
Yet genetic engineering or genetically-modified (GM) technology threatens that food and ag system with the risk of genetic contamination of non-GM and organic crops.
Such contamination – a 2014 review put the number of cases at 396 – is a very real threat to Sonoma County’s food and agriculture supply, as the slightest GM contamination can endanger entire crops by excluding them from their intended markets. Around a third of the United State’s export markets prohibit the import of GM crops.
Genetically-modified organisms (GMO) do not even have to be approved by regulators and available commercially in order to endanger existing crops, as indicated by several recent incidents of GM contamination.
Last summer, for the third time in three years, the USDA discovered unapproved genetically-modified wheat plants growing in the U.S., this time in a Washington field last planted in 2015. Unapproved GM wheat was previously discovered in Montana in 2014 and Oregon in 2013.
Just one week prior to the discovery of the Washington state GM contamination, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) released its long-awaited report on the 2013 Oregon discovery, concluding that the agency “was unable to determine exactly how the GE wheat came to grow in the farmer’s field.”
What the USDA did conclude, is that the GM wheat found in Oregon was originally developed by Monsanto to be glyphosate-resistant. Farmers bore the cost of their wheat crops’ temporary rejection by Japan and South Korea, though Monsanto was ultimately forced toe pay them $2.4 million in compensation.
“APHIS has not deregulated any GE wheat varieties to date, and thus, there are no GE wheat varieties for sale or in commercial production in the United States.”
Two years after the Montana GM wheat was discovered, APHIS is still investigating how the crop came to be growing at the research facility there, as it was last authorized for field trials in 2003, over a decade earlier.
In assessing the risk of genetic modification technology to food and ag systems, it’s worthwhile to consult those who conduct risk analysis for a living – the re/insurance industry. These are the insurers who insure other insurers, who in turn insure farmers, food, agriculture, chemical companies and others against unintended and unforeseeable consequences and attempt to help them avoid unnecessary risk.
In an urgent warning to its clientele, reinsurance bigwig PartnerRe’s assessment of genetically-modified organisms concluded that “Uncertainty over the long-term health and environmental impact, contamination, food chain complexity, strict liability and the potential for high severity claims scenarios are keeping GMO immature and with an extreme and long-tail risk potential.”
Its Partner Reviews report for May 2013 was titled “GMO: Not New, But Still an Emerging Liability Risk.” It is excerpted at length below.
GMO seed producers, the farmers who are planting these crops and the food industry are exposed to litigation should their products result in third-party injury or financial loss. For example, a GM crop might contaminate the crop of a neighboring organic farmer or a product might be recalled due to health risk or mislabeling. GMOs may have been with us since the mid 1990’s, but given only limited studies on their long-term effects (on human and animal health and on the environment), as well as difficulties to contain the modified genes, complex food supply chains and distribution networks and uncertainties around liability, liability re/insurers still need to tread carefully.
There are however uncertainties as regards the impacts of GMOs on human (direct consumption or via meat or fish produce fed on GM products) and animal health, and on the environment, which all potentially impact liability re/insurance.
GMOs could result in new pathogens and allergies, as well as resistance to antibiotics and other treatments. Contamination of soil, non-target organisms (e.g. wild plants and beneficial insects) and non-GM crops via wind-blown seed or for example pollen dispersion, are also major concerns, as is the impact of ‘stronger’ lineages on biodiversity. Known as ‘outcrossing’, the spread of GM material to non-GM crops has already been documented.
Scientific health studies are on-going, some with negative results, such as reported intestinal damage in animals given genetically modified tomatoes and corn…
There are several incidents that cast a shadow on the safety of GMOs and importantly also on the ability to control the dissemination of these organisms throughout food production and distribution networks, not to mention the environment as a whole.
Of particular concern to liability re/insurers in addition to the uncertainties regarding potential long-term health and environmental impact, are issues with contamination (despite regulations and measures such as separation buffers), food chain and distribution complexity, strict liability and the potential for high severity claims scenarios (further increased in the case of class actions). As new GMOs are developed and with each product requiring separate risk evaluation, this remains a relatively young and continually evolving risk, with an extreme and long-tail potential.
GMOs are a relatively new phenomenon with a proven record of wide dispersion potential and whose long-term effects are not yet fully analyzed or understood.
With strict liability in the arena and considering the uncontainable nature of gene propagation, the full spectrum of GMO risk is a topic that the re/insurance industry needs to continue discussing.
Given such dire language from the insurance industry surrounding the complexity and risk of GMO usage, it’s little wonder that many non-GMO and organic farmers have embraced a ban on cultivation in Sonoma County as the sole means of protecting their farms and livelihoods from genetic contamination.
Many consider GM technology an intolerable risk which could have irreparable consequences.
A 2008 study presented to the 16th IFOAM Organic World Congress, titled The Economic Impacts of GM Contamination Incidents on the Organic Sector, concluded that “GM contamination can give rise to a wide range of economic impacts beyond those related to legal tolerance standards.”
“These include lost markets, lost sales, lower prices, negative publicity, withdrawal of organic certification and product recalls.”
The establishment of specific standards for the amount of genetically-modified material allowed is “unlikely to adequately reduce these incidences. These findings highlight the need to control the level of contamination rather than simply adjusting the legal standards for tolerance.”
From our perspective, Jana McClelland of McClellands Dairy and Farm may have summed up the situation best, as reported recently by the Sonoma Food News, published by The Seed Bank folks.
Genetically engineered plants cross pollinate with similar crops, resulting in GMO contamination. It has affected corn, canola, beets, soybeans, grass and alfalfa. Studies have shown grass contamination up to 11 miles.
When contamination occurs, it results in severe economic losses to farmers. We are at risk of losing our customers who demand non-GMO if we don’t do something. 35 countries won’t even accept GMO imports.
That’s why I don’t want GMO crops gaining a foothold in Sonoma County. Right now, the threat of GMO contamination is very small because GMO crops are rarely grown here. But that could change as more GMO seeds are developed.
Passing Measure M is about being proactive, to protect our local farms from GMO contamination – just like five other California counties have already done, at no cost to taxpayers.
Please support our local family farms here in Sonoma County by voting YES on M.