OMG, GMOs: Organic Seed Farmer Frank Morton

This is the third in a series of Q & A's on genetically engineered food, which harm the environment by increasing pesticide use, creating pesticide resistant superweeds and contaminating conventional and organic crops.

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(This is the third in a series of Q & A’s on genetically engineered food, which harm the environment by increasing pesticide use, creating pesticide resistant superweeds and contaminating conventional and organic crops. Earthjustice is challenging the USDA’s decision to allow genetically engineered sugar beets and alfalfa onto the market. To learn more, check out our GMO web feature.

EJ: How did you first learn about GE crops in your area?  
FM: I was at a meeting of the Willamette Valley Specialty Seed Association in Oregon in 2006 when a member told us that he had planted GE sugar beets. None of the other members of the association had any idea this had happened. We were never informed by the USDA. Nobody asked the seed association whether this would have any impact on us. So basically a lot of us felt like we weren’t consulted about this, but there was a sort of fatalism about it among the membership because they didn’t think there was anything that could be done about it.
I am the only 100 percent organic seed farmer in the group, so it fell to me to make the organization realize the long-term consequences of us having GE crops in the valley. I told the group that whether they were conventional or organic, their customers would not want to have GE seed contamination. The group actually did agree with that perception. However, they insisted that because the USDA allowed this happen, we were powerless to do anything about it. So, nobody wanted to get involved, except eventually I did.

EJ: How do GE crops threaten farmers of organic or conventional (non-GE) crops?
FM: This past January, one of the members of the seed association lost a multimillion dollar contract with a European seed company because the company perceived a risk of contamination from GMOs now that GE crops were being allowed in the Willamette Valley. This is precisely what I envisioned happening. When this member reported that he had just lost a multimillion dollar contract not because of contamination but because of the fear of the risk of contamination, suddenly the conventional growers completely got it.  
The problem is that you can’t see the difference between non-GE and GE crops. The GE trait is invisible. So if a farmer’s crops are contaminated by GE crops, the farmer would never notice. And those contaminated salad greens would go into production along with everything else because there’s nothing to indicate that they’re not normal.
EJ: Last February, the USDA allowed the U.S. sugar beet industry to continue growing Monsanto’s Roundup Ready GE sugar beets despite contamination concerns. What was your reaction?
FM: I just flat out felt poorly protected by my government. When the USDA allowed GE sugar beets, then the way I perceive that is that they are insisting that I must be okay with being contaminated and that my customers must be okay with buying seed that will have some percentage of GE traits in it. De facto co-existence is what we have right now. There’s no difference between what they’re asking us to accept and what the condition already is. If you ask me. I think I have as much right to grow seeds as anybody, but as an organic grower if I’m contaminated by GE crops, then I can’t sell my seeds.
Genetic engineering is of no benefit to me. It’s nothing but a threat. To me, this feels like a burdensome tax on my business. It feels unfair that I get no benefit, and I have to pay to protect myself by testing my seed for GE contamination before selling it.
EJ: What is it about GE crops that concerns you the most?
FM: I do not believe that GE crops are being given a critical look. It’s like any tool, for example, a chainsaw. Chainsaws can either be used to maintain forests and heat my house or chainsaws can be used to cut down rainforests and put the whole planet’s weather system in a tailspin. Whether or not genetic engineering is a good thing or a bad thing is something we can all argue about over a lot of beer, but the way it’s being used right now I don’t see the benefit.
What bothers me is that the look that the USDA gives to GE crops does not seem to be a hard look. I don’t see independent science being done on the effects of these crops. I see corporate science being done and then that corporate science being rubber-stamped by the USDA.  I also have the sense that there’s a rotating door in the background where the very people that are part of the biotech industry become a part of the regulatory system and then they go back to being part of the industry once they’re done. That looks bad, smells bad, and I think it is bad. It leads to corruption. That revolving door between Monsanto and the USDA and EPA is just so highly suspect. I don’t know how anyone can ignore it.
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Jessica is a former award-winning journalist. She enjoys wild places and dispensing justice, so she considers her job here to be a pretty amazing fit.

Established in 1988, Earthjustice's Mid-Pacific Office, located in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, works on a broad range of environmental and community health issues, including to ensure water is a public trust and to achieve a cleaner energy future.