GMO corn dump

Badlands Journals  Bill Hatch  June 23, 2003    GMO Corn Dumped In Front of Steffens’ Home    A group of around 50 people, several of them farmers, gathered Monday afternoon in Sacramento across from the home of Lincoln Steffens (now the Governor’s Mansion Museum) and performed a ritual painstakingly negotiated with police, and, after a speech, dumped several bags of genetically engineered corn on a tarp spread out on a strip of lawn between the sidewalk and the curb of I Street several yards from the 16th Street intersection.  The ritual dumping was the protest of the National Family Farm Coalition against the conference being held in town, under the auspices of Californian Secretary of Agriculture, Ann Veneman, for agricultural ministers of the World Trade Organization to push for world acceptance of US agricultural biotechnology, a science in which several corporations, notably Texas-based Monsanto, are heavily invested.  The high priest of the ritual dumping was George Naylor, an Iowa corn and soybean grower and president of the coalition. Press agents for the event had been working the working press meandering through demonstrations all day to insure good coverage of the statement. At the event itself, press agents supplied anyone with any sign of recording equipment both with individual sheets from their press kit and with the press kit itself.  The Sacramento Police Department, funded and manned to handle an invasion of their city by the FARC revolutionary armed forces of Columbia, provided six motorcycle officers and two squad cars to help the farmers and their supporters. The motorcycles were parked in the left lane of one-way I Street and the squad cars in the right lane, squeezing the beginning of commuter traffic down to one lane in the middle and making the frequent left-hand turns from I onto 16th, used by many downtown commuters to get to the highway going east to their homes irritating.  One can only imagine the difficult negotiations with the ritual dumping.  Well, you’re claiming it’s toxic. Why should we let you dump it on the street?  If the public dumping had been arranged to alert motorists to the dangers of GMO grains and beans, it was a failure because, between to the irritating traffic jam, the cordon of motorcycles and the crowd of video-bearing reporters and well-wishers balancing precariously on the curb while Naylor spoke, no commuter could be sure exactly what was going on. Most probably imagined a pedestrian had been run over at the intersection.  The crowd included a contingent dressed in chef jackets, UC Davis graduate students, non-profit and political staffers, several north-coast organic gardeners, one bemused California oral historian, and a large number of people carrying a variety of recording devices from my lowly notebook to radio microphones and video cameras.  American farming is a mess right now, Naylor said. Its dairies are receiving “seventies prices while others receive 2003 wages.” Many consumers in America and foreign countries don’t care for genetically modified food, he argued. So, why do we have it? he asked, launching into the familiar line of American farmers -- for which they have quite a bit of evidence -- that there is no food-supply problem (undercutting the biotech-corporate argument that GMO technology is required to feed starving masses) but there is and has long been a big problem with food distribution. He then accused “they” of wanting to keep food supplies high and prices low for growers.  The “they” to which he refers is basically the US government, principally the Department of Agriculture which, for the majority of farmers in the nation, is a cradle-to-grave mono-information source.  He noted that since 1998 it has been illegal to grow GMO corn in Mexico, with Central America the native home of maize, but that investigators have discovered that 8 percent of the indigenous maize varieties grown in Oaxaca are now contaminated.   By contamination he meant that pollen from GMO varieties is transmitted by wind, insects and other means to non-GMO varieties. This is called gene pollution or drift and farmers who do not grow GMO varieties are finding themselves helpless to defend their fields against this gene pollution from field where GMO varieties are planted.  Yet we don’t have adequate evidence of the amount of gene pollution in either the US or Canada, he continued.  The GMO selling campaign by its corporate inventors, who have patented their seeds and had local authorities arrest a number of farmers alleged to have deliberately attempted to save them for next years’ plantings, “is built on lies,” Naylor said. “They are not cheaper and they do not produce greater harvest.”  Warming to his theme, he began an economic analysis of the GMO deal but his words were obliterated by a large cement truck, waiting for the light to change.  His conclusion, however, was audible. Technologies that cost more and yield less (it was “no more” before the cement truck) are insane. Monsanto is spending $50 million a year in advertising, he said, adding that Secretary Veneman ought to be ashamed for hosting this “infomercial for Monsanto.”  Then, the offending corn was poured onto the tarp, accompanied by chants of “Monsanto No, Farmers Yes.”  I was able to talk to Naylor briefly afterwards and asked him what kind of farmer he was and what he personal interest in this issue involved. He said he was a conventional, not an organic, farmer. In other words he uses commercial fertilizers and pesticides. He has a neighbor who plants GMO corn that genetically pollutes his corn.  An issue here is that Naylor attempts to compete for a premium price buyers are offering farmers for non-GMO corn, because non-GMO corn fetches a better price in domestic and export markets.  However, despite federal Environmental Protection Agency recommendations (not enforceable requirements) that buffer be maintained between GMO and non-GMO varieties, Naylor said they expect his field, separated by a road from his neighbors,’ to be that buffer.   This unfairness goes, in some part, to the lack of any federal law on the subject of gene drift. Naylor explained that the theory EPA is operating under doesn’t involve his markets but the regulators’ wish to keep an adequate population of pests away from GMOs to slow the rate of mutation among the species to resistance.  For non-farmers, the point here is that every farmer, pesticide or biotechnological manufacturer and regulatory agent knows perfectly well that insects eventually mutate to produce species of themselves resistant or immune to the science mankind employs to kill them. The EPA is at this point conducting a 10-year study on pesticides, during which it has ordered farmers to use only one pesticide per species of pest, which has resulted in an acceleration of insect resistance.  Before the order, farmers typically used several types of pesticides to deal with their main pests. In some cases, special permission has been granted to farmers facing what they claim is a new pest but which is, in fact, a mutation of a familiar one.   Naylor also grows (or grew) non-GMO soybeans for a Japanese company with a processing in his county, he said. But this year he and his buyers were unable to find one variety of soybean seed that was not contaminated with engineered genes so that deal doesn’t look hopeful for the farmer-coalition president.  Leaving the event, I thought I saw the ghost of Steffens, the Old Muckracker himself, perched on a gable of the mansion across the street where he grew up, chowing down on a can of worms.