Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its newest data on the organic sector, featuring results from a survey of organic farmers conducted earlier this year. The survey results confirm what organic farmers have been saying in recent years – while overall organic sales went up, the number of organic farms in the U.S. went down. It’s a pattern that’s sadly familiar in the world of conventional agriculture and one that is sparking serious discussion in the organic community.
Buried fairly deep in the report is another result that makes it very clear that GMO crops are putting an unfair burden on organic farms across the country. GMO crops can contaminate non-GMO and organic crops through cross-pollination on the field or through seed or grain mixing post-harvest. And because the USDA organic standards require that organic farmers take preventative measures to minimize the risk of contamination, organic farmers end up bearing the burden of trying to avoid GMO presence from crops planted by their neighbors. But if their buffers or delayed planting regimens are unsuccessful at preventing GMO presence on their farm, they also bear the financial burden if they can’t sell their crop for a premium since there are no programs currently in place to compensate them for their losses.
We know that these losses aren’t abstract threats, but actual problems suffered by organic farmers, because in 2013 we asked farmers themselves. We worked with the Organic Farmers Agency for Responsible Marketing (OFARM) to conduct our own survey of organic farmers, and one out of three respondents indicated that they had dealt with GMO contamination on their farm. Of those with contamination, over half had been rejected by their buyers for that reason with a median loss of $4,500 per rejection.
Food & Water Watch and other organizations called on the USDA to collect its own data on this topic, and this year it finally did. Results from the newest USDA survey indicate that of the farmers who chose to answer the question, 92 had experienced monetary loss between 2011 and 2014 averaging approximately $66,395 per farmer during that timeframe. Overall, GMO presence cost organic farmers at least $6.1 million over four years. This figure is 77 times that reported during the 2006 to 2011 timeframe—a staggering increase.
Six million dollars might sound like a lot, but that burden is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the financial harm GMO production can impose on organic producers. This survey question conspicuously did not take into consideration any financial impacts associated with pesticide drift, which is becoming more and more common as the USDA continues to approve a bevy of herbicide-tolerant crops.
Regarding drift issues, one farmer we surveyed wrote, “my only problem comes from drift when commercial chemical sprayers spray on a windy day and the spray drifts across the road or buffer strip to kill my alfalfa or other crops. I call the company and complain but they have never compensated me for my loss as of yet.” Regarding dicamba, another farmer wrote, “I’m more concerned with spray drift—especially with the effort to release Banvel-resistant soybeans. Everyone knows how volatile that chemical can be—not only to organic farmers but all farmers and home owners.” Even Roundup, considered to be less harmful and less prone to drift than 2,4-D and dicamba has been a huge problem for organic growers. One farmer wrote, “in the last 16 years I have had three instances where spray drift has affected my fields. All three times it was Roundup. It has totaled $65,000 and I have had to start the three-year transition process [for organic certification] all over.” Not only has spray drift negatively affected relationships between neighbors, it has resulted in organic farmers being forced to take some areas of their farm out of organic production completely.
These new reports from organic farmers about the real costs of GMOs make it clear once again that it’s past time for USDA to hold biotech and seed companies with GMO seed patents accountable for all losses associated with GMO contamination. But it also makes clear that the USDA’s commitment to herbicide-tolerant crops as the be-all end-all solution to weed control will continue to harm organic and non-GMO producers.