Mow Me Less
- Tales of a GE Resistant Lawn
by CR Lawn
Maine Organic Farmer and Gardener Association
Common Ground Country Fair KEYNOTE Sept. 23, 2000
Thank you. I am deeply honored and moved to be here. A quarter
century ago, in February, 1975, while I was living in a neighbor’s
barn and building my house, I plunked down five bucks to join
MOFGA and shared my intentions to start an organic market garden.
I’ve never forgotten the warm reply I received from Tym
Nason. Tym also sent the first three issues ever produced of the
MOF&G. I still have Vol. 1, #1 and here it is. It has a column
by Eliot Coleman and a letter from then-MOFGA president Mort Mather
entitled “What Does MOFGA Mean?” Mort has since graduated
to judging the Harry S. Truman manure pitch contest here at the
Fast forward seven years to 1982, Fedco Seeds’ first appearance
at Common Ground Fair, in which we shared a booth (a practice
now forbidden at the Fair) with the Midwives of Maine and a political
group I’ve long since forgotten and sold $158.10 of seeds
and five T-shirts, despite maintaining only intermittent attendance
at the booth (another forbidden practice today). At last year’s
Fair Fedco had sales of exactly $15,325.04.
I like to think that Fedco and MOFGA have grown up together,
from the days when many considered MOFGA to be a mere handful
of hippies with some way-out ideas about soil, agriculture and
society and Fedco to be a quirky collection of visionaries with
quaint notions about how people could work together to save money.
Today I celebrate the good work that can be initiated by a handful
of dedicated people who have a dream. Truly, MOFGA has come a
long way. And it has done so because that dedicated band of people
who wrote me in 1975 kept the faith. And I want you to remember
this as I continue because their hard work and fortitude against
all odds are the most important reason why I stand here today
Today that small band has become a force to be reckoned with.
Organic food is the fastest growing sector of the US food economy,
growing at about 20% per year.(1) Between 1995 and 1997, US acreage
in organic production increased by almost 50%, a trend which is
continuing.(2) And while the number of farms and farmers nationwide
continues its seemingly inexorable decline, US Secretary of Agriculture
Dan Glickman reports that the number of organic farmers is increasing
by 12% per year.(3) When the organic farmers didn’t like
the organic standards proposed by the USDA they responded with
a record 275,000 comments, and the rules have been completely
rewritten. With 3,000 members, MOFGA is the largest and the oldest
state organic association in the country. And I understand more
than 100 people joined yesterday so that makes 3,100 and for all
I know another 100 today which would make the total 3,200. And
our Fair is year after year the largest gathering of organic agriculture
in the country as well as the only one in the state this year
(and maybe the only such gathering in the whole country) with
all food completely free of genetically modified organisms! Yes,
we have much to celebrate.
And yet, the challenges before us are even more daunting than
those faced by that small band of so-called hippies 25 years ago.
There is a second reason why I stand here before you today. I
am old enough to remember DDT. My parents were political progressives
who decided to raise me and my brother in a rural environment.
So they bought a 25-acre farm in Vermont just before World War
II in 1940 (securing their $1,000 purchase with a down payment
of $20!), saved up rationing coupons to make occasional trips
there during the war, and moved in 1946 when I was just two months
old. I still remember listening to the farm programs on the radio
in the late forties. DDT was to be the saviour: Just spray and
all insect damage would disappear from crops forever and ever
more, amen. Theirs was a more naive age which still believed in
progress without a price and used DDT without a qualm. Rachel
Carson’s Silent Spring was still far in the future.
No one knew DDT could cause harm. By the time they found out,
it was much too late.
As farmers and gardeners we pride ourselves on being practical
and sensible. Common sense tells us that if one approach to solving
a problem is not working and making it worse, we should try something
else. The fraction of US crops lost to insects is now nearly twice
what it was in the 1940s when synthetic pesticides were introduced.(4)
As the bugs get more resistant, farmers have used more and stronger
pesticides, leading to increased resistance, more bugs and still
more pesticides. The biotechnology approach, which claims to reduce
pesticide use, is looking more and more like merely an intensification
of the same treadmill to oblivion. 99% of all first generation
biotech products incorporated two traits: herbicide resistance
or the Bt toxin.(5) Growers of Roundup Ready soybeans are using
2-5 times as much herbicide as conventional growers, according
to a University of Wisconsin study.(6)
Today we have a cancer epidemic. All three other members of
my nuclear family died from different forms of cancer, leaving
me the sole survivor at the ripe age of 35. Now I’m not
saying that DDT caused the cancers (though it might have) and
I am not saying that genetic engineering will cause cancer, but
I’m not saying it won’t. We don’t know what
The apologists for genetic engineering say that it has not been
proven to cause harm. While the most recent scientific evidence
should give pause, my real point is that the bioengineers are
asking the wrong question. The question is not whether genetically
engineered foods have been shown to cause harm. The question is
whether they have been proven safe, and they have not because
the technology has been rushed to market without adequate testing.
Tell the giant corporations that we are not willing to risk that
genetically engineered products could be the next DDT. Tell them
that any harm from the products may not be discernible for two
or three generations. And by then it will be too late, just as
it was too late with DDT.
Now I want to tell you a lawn story, a tree story and a fish
story. Given that I am myself a lawn, I feel eminently qualified
on the subject of lawns. And so it was with some consternation
that I read a recent e-mail taken from a July 9 New York Times
story that Scotts Company in Arysville, Ohio; Monsanto, whom we
all know; and Rutgers University have teamed up to try to engineer
a Roundup-resistant genetically engineered grass, a GE mow-me-less
grass called lo-mow that grows slowly, and even grasses with luminescent
genes that would make them glow. They envision a $10 billion market
among golf courses and suburban lawns.(7) I personally prefer
lawns that glow from the sunshine!
Turning to trees, Monsanto, International Paper, Westvaco Corporation
and Fletcher Challenge Forests (don’t ask me what a challenge
forest is) are investing $60 million to produce and market GE
tree seedlings.(8) These trees can’t reproduce, leaving
them with more energy to grow faster. Imagine if the gene causing
infertility escaped to the woods!
Finally, my fish story. Now I'm not a fisherman but I know that
most fish stories are about the one that got away. We can only
hope that this one doesn’t get away! This is about my favorite
eating fish, the salmon. Native salmon produce growth hormone
only in the warm months. A/F Protein Inc. in Waltham, MA, has
developed a super-salmon engineered with genes from an ocean flounder
to produce growth hormone all year round.(9) They grow 4-to-6
times faster than conventional salmon. Although transgenic fish
have not been approved for sale and no human health studies have
been done or are even contemplated, A/F Protein already has advance
orders for 15 million eggs and would be ready to ship next year,
should they receive FDA approval. Like the infamous Bovine Growth
Hormone in milk, which has been banned in almost every country
in the world except the US, the fish would be regulated by the
FDA as a new animal drug, not as a novel food product for human
Ecologists fear that if these salmon are raised in net pens in
the ocean they will probably escape—just as ordinary farm-raised
salmon routinely escape and mate with wild populations. A study
by two Purdue University scientists found that larger male fish
have a huge mating advantage, attracting up to four times as many
females as their smaller counterparts. (Now I’ll refrain
from making any allegorical comparisons with other species!) Using
a computer model to measure the ecological effect of just 60 transgenic
fish released into a population of 60,000 wild fish, the scientists
found that wild fish populations would dwindle to extinction in
just 40 generations.(10) They dubbed their work “The Trojan
Gene Hypothesis,” in honor of the Trojan Horse which seemed
innocuous but proved fatal.
Now A/F's CEO is no dummy. He countered that they could sterilize
the male fish before putting them in net pans, but the effectiveness
of sterilization techniques, especially in male fish, is questionable.(11)
I’m going to enjoy eating salmon while I can, because if
the FDA approves transgenic salmon, I won’t be eating any
Now I want you to imagine that you were asked to take part in
a controlled scientific experiment for a limited period of time.
You would ingest certain foods which were not absolutely proven
to be safe and were told that the research would have many benefits,
indeed might help feed the world. Would you participate? [No hands
went up] Not even in a controlled experiment? Now let’s
suppose you were made the subject of a similar experiment, only
without being told, without any controls and with an indefinite
time duration. Would you willingly take part? [a chorus of no’s]
Would you be angry if you found out? You are taking part in such
an experiment—the most ambitious biological experiment ever
undertaken. It is called genetic engineering. It has no controls,
no time duration, no limits at all. Unlike laboratory experiments
it cannot be contained. The whole Earth is the laboratory. Unlike
most experiments whose products can be destroyed if we don’t
like them, these GE products are alive, capable of reproducing
with a will of their own. 60% of all food products on your supermarket
shelves now contain at least one GE ingredient.(12) The breathtaking
spread of GE crops, a 14-fold increase from 5 million acres in
1996 to 70 million in 1998(13) has been 99% concentrated in only
three countries—the United States, Canada and Argentina,
with 75% of all acreage in the United States.(14) We rightfully
cringe when we read about the Nazis’ so-called scientific
and medical experiments, but this time we are the guinea pigs
right here in the USA.
Well, never fear. The creators insist that these foods are safe.
They’ve convinced our government watchdog agencies that
these foods are substantially equivalent to unaltered foods and
therefore require neither labeling nor significant restrictions
to market access.
But a look at mounting evidence from many scientific studies
is giving a very different picture. Research from Cornell and
Iowa State Universities has confirmed that Bt corn pollen kills
monarch butterflies. This impact on non-target species was not
predicted prior to the release of Bt corn.(15) Research from Europe
showed that beneficial insects that prey on aphids which have
consumed Bt toxins have lower survival and reproductive rates
than those which feed on healthy aphids. This impact was not researched
or anticipated prior to release.(16) Research from NYU shows that
Bt toxins exude from the roots of living corn plants and persist
in the soil for at least 243 days with unknown effects on soil
microorganisms. This impact was not predicted or researched prior
to release.(17) Professor Hans Hinrich Kaatz found in a 4-year
study in Germany that GE pollen consumed by bees had its alien
genes transfered to bacteria that live in the guts of the bees.
The implication, that alien genes could move into other bacteria,
including those in the human digestive system, was not anticipated
or researched prior to the release of genetically altered Bt crops.(18)
Roundup Ready soy which Monsanto said in 1993 contained a single
new strand of DNA, has now been found to have two other fragments
of foreign DNA in it. This surely was not anticipated prior to
release.(19) Volunteer canola has been found in Alberta which
combines the three genes for resistance to three different herbicides.(20)
So much for claims by GE corporations such as Novartis that “agricultural
biotechnology is a precise scientific process.”
Despite repeated assurances from genetic engineers that herbicide-resistant
weeds would not become a problem, farmers in Canada are having
to eradicate GE weed canola, an expensive headache necessitating
the use of additional toxic chemicals. Cotton, genetically engineered
with Bt toxin to resist several insect pests, has become infested
with stink bugs. This was not anticipated prior to the release
of Bt cotton(21) Monsanto responded by recommending that growers
spray the stink bugs with highly toxic pesticides such as methyl
parathion. So much for the bioengineers’ claim that GE crops
will reduce reliance on insecticides.
The biotech industry promised that GE crops would be higher-yielding
and more nutritious. But so far, Roundup Ready soy, which now
comprises 54% of the North American soy crop, is a failure. Several
studies show that it yields an average of 4-11% less than conventional
varieties.(22) Other studies indicate that it may also be less
nutritious.(23) And so, the industry has taken a public relations
But don’t underestimate their intelligence and their deep
pockets. Realizing the need to shore up their image, in the fall
of 1999 they launched a massive PR campaign. Monsanto retained
Burson-Marsteller, a global PR firm, at an annual cost of millions
of dollars.(24) Seven so-called life-science companies formed
the Council of Biotechnology Information and committed $50 million
for each of 3-5 years to a multi-media initiative including a
toll-free consumer number and print and television advertising
campaigns.(25) They devised programs to get into schools and universities
to indoctrinate students with their pro-biotech propaganda.
This Monsanto Activity Guidebook, Sustainability, Seeds for Thought
with a teacher workship and hand-on kits is one product. Borrowing
language from the organic movement, incorporating rigorous science
and a set of ingenious experiments designed to engage schoolchildren
and their teachers, this booklet nevertheless reinforces the dominant
paradigm that plants are factories that will be redesigned to
serve human needs so that biotechnology will feed the world. It
was given free to more than 20,000 science teachers at the National
Science Education Convention in Boston last spring.
The gene giants promise a new lineup of nutritionally and pharmaceutically
enhanced foods. The star will be a new strain of rice called Golden
Rice, genetically engineered to increase the beta-carotene content,
using, among others, a gene from a daffodil. This rice, developed
by the same Rockefeller Foundation that was the chief architect
of the 1960s Green Revolution, will likely have the same effect
as the Green Revolution.(26) In the short run, free distribution
of the rice will reduce vitamin A deficiency and reduce hunger.
But in the long run, it will have a devastating effect on small-scale
local subsistence economies and on biodiversity, driving people
off farms into cities and driving scores of locally adapted varieties
and land-races of rice into extinction, while creating monocultures
that rely on expensive outside chemical and irrigation inputs.
Noted Indian physicist Vandana Shiva tells of one village which
relies on 110 different varieties of edible food plants for its
sustenance.(27) How tragic to replace that diversity with one
strain of rice! Martha Crouch, formerly a geneticist at University
of Indiana who left the field for ethical reasons, calls the Golden
Rice experiment the Purina dog kibbles approach to human nutrition:
one pellet will provide all the nutrients needed.(28)
But there is a better approach to feeding the world. It is called
organic agriculture and biodiversity is an essential tenet. It
has no appeal to large corporations because it doesn’t require
expensive inputs which only they can supply. But it works. The
Aug. 22 science section of the New York Times reported on a dramatic
experiment in which thousands of farmers in China doubled their
yields on rice, the world’s most important crop, without
using chemical inputs, without using genetic engineering, and
without spending a single extra penny.(29) Merely by planting
a mixture of two different rices instead of large stands of a
single variety, they radically restricted the incidence of rice
blast, the most important disease of rice in the world. Even more
significant, this was a vast study covering 100,000 acres. Its
simple principle works on a large scale, and in fact, the size
of the experiment created a macro- as well as a micro-effect in
slowing the disease. This could have huge implications for other
Which brings me full circle to our seed supply and the crucial
role of biodiversity. Perhaps even more compelling than the health
and safety issues raised by biotechnology are its social and economic
consequences. It has been the driving force in the rapid consolidation
of the seed industry. Over the last 20 years, at the same time
that the budget for the Antitrust Division decreased, the rate
of agricultural mergers increased by 550%.(30) Today, ten companies
control 30% of the global seed trade, and five of them have virtually
complete control over all genetically engineered crops.(31) Only
four corporations control 70% of the US seed corn market,(32)
only five control 75% of the global vegetable seed market.(33)
On June 28, Seminis, the world’s largest vegetable seed
corporation with 40% of the US market, announced that it was eliminating
2,000 of the 8,000 varieties in its line.(34) What a wealth of
seed diversity is being put in jeopardy! And yet, as long as we
entrust our seed supply to multinational corporations, we put
ourselves at just such risk.
We will get no help from our US Department of Agriculture. The
very same department which a century ago distributed free open-pollinated
seed to farmers to stimulate production of the best varieties,
that same department to which we are about to entrust administration
of our organic standards, is co-patent holder of the infamous
Terminator technology, which would create crops genetically programmed
to produce sterile seed. In one century, the USDA has evolved
from being friend of the farmer to being friend of the multinational
corporation at the expense of the farmer and has left us quite
possibly to face the ultimate irony: the seed that kills itself.
Remember Vietnam when we had to destroy the village in order to
save it? Well, the USDA brings you, “We had to kill the
seed to protect investments.”(35) Like that band of resolute
MOFGA pioneers in 1975, we are left to our own resources.
As Maine’s own Will Bonsall (check out his display at the
Ag Education tent or attend one or more of four different talks
he is giving at the Fair) so eloquently pointed out in his keynote
address at the New York NOFA Conference last January, there are
some things that you just don’t get any kicks from having
somebody else do for you. And as an example, he mentioned sex.
Now seeds are all about sex, the sexual reproduction of plants.
Seriously, I’ve thought a lot about what Will said and I
believe he is right. When I came to Maine I couldn’t hammer
in an eightpenny nail straight and yet I built my own 22x20 hippie
cabin. It was one of the harder things I’ve ever done in
my life because I’m not very patient with things like carpentry
which require extreme precision and I would never consider hiring
myself out to build others’ houses. Yet, I wouldn’t
trade the experience of building my own house for anything. Certain
basic necessities like sex, food and shelter are so fundamental
that we cannot be satisfied in leaving them to others. I believe
the huge revival of interest in medicinal herbs has come from
a desire to regain some control of maintaining our health instead
of leaving it all in the hands of doctors and professionals. But
there is an even more compelling reason why we must regain control
over the foods we eat, and it is the same reason why we have local
school boards. My mother served on one of them for years and so
has my friend here Richie Tory. My mom always used to say that
schools and education were too important to be left to the educators.
So I say that food is too important to be left in the hands of
giant corporations. If we continue to allow them to control our
food supply we cannot be a free people. And that is why MOFGA
is so important. It stands as a sort of state food board and we
also need local food boards just as we need local school boards.
Today we stand in relation to the seed about where the pioneering
organic farmers of forty years ago stood in relation to the land.
Only a relative few are engaged in the painstaking work of preserving
our genetic heritage. And yet, it takes only a few to make a beginning.
Consider the pioneering work done by just one couple. Kent and
Diane Whealy started with three varieties handed down from his
grandfather and in only 25 years built an organization with almost
1,000 active seed savers maintaining more than 11,000 heritage
varieties. And they changed the whole trend of gardening away
from hybrids and back towards venerable old varieties and now
they are really beginning to get those varieties into circulation,
not just among seed savers but out to all of us. Because seeds
are like money. They are energy. When they accumulate and concentrate
in a few hands it is a sign of social disease. When they circulate
freely and are regrown widely it is a sign of social health—of
And we have an enormous advantage over the pioneers of forty
years ago because we have already experienced the collective success
of building upon what they began. Together we have already created
a powerful movement in the last two generations. Today when I
watch seed orders come in I am awed by the extent of the progressive
agricultural experiments taking place—scores and scores
of organic farms, biodynamic farms, CSA’s, community organizations,
farms inspired by Bromfield, Acres USA, by Steiner, by Matsinobo
Fukuoka. Today we have books to inspire and instruct us, appropriate
tools to make our work easier, new direct markets like farmers
markets and CSAs. We still have a long way to go, but look how
far we’ve come. And yet, there is a vital piece missing
that stands at the beginning of it all––control of
the seed. Here’s what you can do: First, learn who controls
the seed, how and why. Then begin to withhold support from those
who are not worthy of it—the behemoth corporations and the
genetic engineers. Do this by voting with your dollars. Support
those small seed companies who are working to preserve the best
open-pollinated varieties. Avoid buying from the big conglomerates.
Will Bonsall suggests that we stop buying hybrids. Now that is
easier said than done. Little work has been done on creating,
improving or maintaining open-pollinated varieties over the last
60 years. Therefore, many hybrids today appear to be superior
to open-pollinated varieties in earliness, disease resistance
and appearance. The superiority of hybrids became the self-fulfilling
prophecy of the seed wholesalers and several hundred of the hybrid
varieties are now classics of the vegetable trade. Those who make
their living selling vegetables commercially will not willingly
go cold turkey on Copra Onions, Sunburst Patty Pan Squash, Snow
Crown Cauliflower, Silver Queen Sweet Corn or Celebrity Tomato,
all unfortunately controlled by the same behemoths who are bringing
us transgenic crops.
However, ours is the slow and patient path and we can begin by
setting aside some plots to experiment with open-pollinated varieties
which might conceivably replace these hybrids. We can go further
by educating our customers to appreciate diversity—that
not all tomatoes have to be red, not all peppers need be shaped
like a bell, that some tomatoes, though blemished on the surface,
taste better than some of those flawless-looking pretty faces.
Why open-pollinated seeds instead of hybrids? Because hybrid
seeds don’t reproduce true-to-type and therefore cannot
be saved and replanted the next year if you want to get the same
variety. Therefore, when you use hybrids, you have to go back
to the seed company every year for new seed. Think of hybrids
as incomplete varieties which have never been stabilized. The
big seed wholesalers have an economic disincentive to complete
them, because they want you to be dependent. Most of our great
open-pollinated varieties started as genetic sports in the field
or as products of deliberate farmer breeding. They were then completed
by farmers, stabilized so that their seed would reproduce true-to-type
year after year. Using open-pollinated seeds gives you the potential
to save your own seed.
There are glaring gaps in our lineup of good open-pollinated
varieties. Where are the good early-season open-pollinated muskmelons?
How about an OP brussels sprout that produces decent-sized sprouts?
Cauliflower that will make tight white curds and won’t get
ricey even in heat? We at Fedco and at scores of other alternative
seed companies and the people in the Seed Savers Exchange will
be striving over the next years to find the best old varieties
from all over the world to fill these gaps. Please support us
in our painstaking work of reclaiming our heritage and replacing
those hybrid interlopers from the corporate behemoths. Do you
have seed or know of seed for an old variety that has been handed
down? Get it into seed savers and send a trial sample to your
favorite seed company. Do you know of good old varieties not readily
available in the catalogs? Let your favorite small seed supplier
know about them.
Here is the Long Pie Pumpkin. It was once the only pie pumpkin
considered worth growing in Androscoggin County (they didn’t
know anything about those round ones). It has been preserved largely
because of three people. LeRoy Souther, an aging Mainer from Livermore
Falls had been saving seed from it for many years before he brought
it to Common Ground Fair sometime in the 1980s. He presented it
to John Navazio, an avid squash enthusiast who had a booth at
the Fair displaying the diversity of winter squash. Navazio grew
it out and loved it. It makes the creamiest most delicious pumpkin
pies. Navazio took it with him when he went to the University
of Wisconsin to learn to be a plant breeder. Later when he went
to work for Garden City Seeds in Montana he multiplied it out
and got it into their seed catalog. After that it came to my attention
in Fedco’s variety trials. Now it is widely available because
Winnie and Peter Noyes of Thorndike grew more than 50 pounds of
seed for Fedco in the last two years. It has been saved from extinction.
I could tell you plenty of other such stories if I had more time.
Consider saving your own seed. If you want to know how get a
copy of Rob Johnston’s simple inexpensive booklet Growing
Garden Seeds or Suzanne Ashworth’s more detailed classic
Seed to Seed. Start with something easy on a small scale
like beans or tomatoes. If you are successful, maybe you’d
like to join the Seed Savers Exchange and adopt a few favorite
varieties to maintain and preserve.
J.J. Haapala has started a project in Oregon in which he is
enlisting growers to help the National Plant Germplasm System,
our national repository of seeds.(36) Because it has been chronically
underfunded, it has hundreds of varieties which have been sitting
for years with just an accession number, ungrown and never described.
Participants in JJ’s Farmer Cooperative Genome Project will
adopt a variety, grow it out and describe it and return fresh
seed. Undoubtedly this project will unearth some real treasures,
terrific varieties which will eventually find their way into the
Seed Savers Exchange and into our seed catalogs.
If you really develop an interest and want to move beyond growing
tiny quantities of a few varieties, take advantage of the increasing
opportunities in years ahead to grow seed crops commercially for
small companies like Fedco. We have a long list of superior old
varieties unearthed in our trials that are just waiting for a
grower like you to come along and plant a successful crop so they
can find their way into our catalog where they can be enjoyed
by hundreds of farmers and gardeners.
Once you’ve mastered the art of seed saving and honed
your observation skills, you may want to reconnect with our heritage
of ten thousand years and do your own plant breeding. It is not
difficult especially now that Chelsea Green has decided to reprint
Carol Deppe’s groundbreaking work Breed Your Own Vegetable
Varieties. Check out this brilliant book when it is released
later this fall. It makes genetics understandable to a layperson,
even someone like me who never liked science in school! Plant
breeding is too important to be left to the professionals, especially
when the Monsantos of the world have most of the pros in their
Let me introduce a few of the pioneers in the movement to bring
plant breeding back to the farm. They, and not the genetic engineers,
are creating the vegetable lineup for the Fedco catalogs of the
future. Glenn Drowns bred a wonderful open-pollinated keeper watermelon
called Blacktail Mountain when he was still a teenager and is
still hard at work preserving rare breeds of poultry and endangered
heirloom seed varieties at Sand Hill Preservation Center in Iowa.(37)
Tim Peters is breeding worthy open-pollinated broccolis and storage
tomatoes and more.(38) Frank Morton in Oregon works with lettuces,
mustards and other brassicas, wildlings and flowers to create
new varieties out of old standbys.(39) You can see some of his
work with kale and broccoli at the Fedco booth. Fedco has entered
into a consortium of small seed companies, none of whom could
afford to hire a plant breeder on their own, who are cooperating
by each helping underwrite Morton’s breeding work.
I expect to see more collaboration among alternative seed companies
in the near future. Fedco and Pinetree in Maine already buy some
items jointly. Perhaps we small seed companies will be able to
share seed growers and crops to help create better economies of
scale in the years ahead. Maybe we’ll even be able to get
together an alternative to the American Seed Trade Association,
whose support of biotechnology and so-called free trade no longer
represents the beliefs of many of us. We can draw inspiration
from the collaborative work of Tom Stearns of High Mowing Farm
in Vermont, who, along with the Council for Responsible Genetics,
is the primary architect of the Safe Seed Pledge, signed by 60
seed companies and organizations who’ve agreed not to knowingly
buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants.(40) Tom contacted
a core group of eight or ten companies and together over many
conversations we hashed out mutually acceptable wording for the
pledge. Please support those suppliers who signed the pledge.
These are some of the ways we develop an alternative seed production
that will be the foundation of our alternative food production.
This slow, patient work is profoundly political, for those of
you who engage in it will allow the Fedcos of the world to turn
our backs on Novartis and Seminis and offer seeds we really believe
in in quantities you need at prices we can all afford. We will
replace the planned obsolescence designed by the seed wholesalers
with reverence to old varieties that have stood the test of time
for generations and will still be found in Fedco’s 50th
catalog and in our 100th catalog in the year 2078!
But this fun work, this adult treasure hunt following up clues,
finding seed, trialing, seeking out growers and finding ways to
cooperate and collaborate is only half our work. We must also
buy ourselves enough time to lay the foundations for our alternative,
to mature our new systems and solidify our new structures. The
harder half of our work is equally important, the not-slow, not-patient
overtly political work we must do to create a new climate where
the commercialization of suicidal terminator seed is unthinkable,
where genetically engineered crops are extensively tested and
heavily regulated before they are allowed to be marketed, if they
are allowed at all, where transgenic foods are labelled so we
will all know what we are buying, and where organic farmers are
protected from genetic drift by placing the financial onus on
the purveyors and growers of genetically altered crops, where
That work begins by knowing what we put in our mouths. It is
not easy, with no labels and sparse information, for busy people
like us to think about the routine act of eating.(41) But we must.
Buy organic whenever you can. It is the only secure way right
now to be GE-free. Ask your natural food store not to stock genetically
engineered products and to become proactive in asking suppliers
to guarantee that their products have not been genetically altered.
Call the suppliers yourself to find out their policies and let
them know you won’t eat transgenic foods. Tell your supermarket
you want BST-free milk. Tell your legislators and your representatives
and your senators that you support mandatory labeling of genetically
engineered foods and an outright ban on the sale of Terminator
seeds. Tell them that you support more money for our underfunded
National Plant Germplasm System and funding to restore classical
plant breeding programs to our land grant universities. Write,
phone or fax Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman.(42) Tell him
that the use of public research dollars to develop Terminator
technologies and genetic seed sterilization is an abomination
and a gross misuse of public funds for private benefit at public
expense. Ask him to stop using scarce research dollars to pursue
dangerous anti-farmer technologies that threaten biodiversity.
Just as education is too important to be left in the hands of
educators, and seed production is too important to be relinquished
to multinational corporations, so politics is too crucial to be
left to the politicians. Let me say a word in defense of a venerable
Maine institution, the citizen’s initiative, which has recently
come under attack by our Governor who feels the state should institute
tougher rules for referendums.(43) One of his possible suggestions,
already rejected by the last legislature, was to prohibit organizers
from collecting signatures at polling places, a prohibition that
would make it virtually impossible to get enough signatures to
force a referendum on any issue. What better place to collect
names than at the polls where everyone is registered to vote,
at their proper venue, and of the proper mindset to deal with
civic issues? Far from denigrating the referendum process because
it has been used frequently in the past 20 years, Governor King
and all of us should be proud of Maine’s level of citizen
involvement which has produced 12 referenda in the past decade.
It is no coincidence that Maine had the highest voter participation
record in the country in each of the last two presidential election
years and it took more than the charms of Bob Dole or Bill Clinton
to bring that about in 1996. The presence of three referenda that
year, including the controversial ban-clearcutting proposal, definitely
stimulated interest and turnout.(44) I have to be amused at the
Governor’s assertion that the legislature is less beholden
to special interests today than when the first referendum was
held in 1911. Indeed, when MOFGA sought to pass a very limited
bill requiring labelling of unprocessed GE foods, lobbyists descended
on Augusta in swarms to kill the legislation. It seemed like Russell
[Libby, executive director of MOFGA] against the whole world.
And so, I ask you to support the referendum process, to take part
in it as citizens, and to support Maine Right to Know, a small
band of activists no larger than that of MOFGA’s original
founders, who are defying the odds to try to make Maine the first
state to institute labelling of all genetically engineered foods
sold in the state. Check out their booths, near the orchard and
near the amphitheatre.
Allow me a final digression. We live today in an age of devalued
words. Here are three examples: health insurance, social security
and conservative. During a recent visit from a friend in Oregon,
the conversation came around to the need for universal health
insurance. I pointed out that proposed solutions, as needed as
they may be, mostly address access to health care only after a
disaster. Pointing to a quart of freshly pressed organic carrot
juice, I turned to my friend and said, “Here is my health
This here (oops, looks like I forgot one of my props but just
pretend I’m holding it) is my new social security card,
procured only after a struggle with the federal bureaucracy. While
this card might be enough to get me on an airplane, it isn’t
going to give me any real social security. Those of us who are
growers of crops or tenders of animals who eat crops, know that
true social security comes from good soil and good seed. In fact
our seed is far more in jeopardy than our federal social security
program, and the loss of control of our seed threatens far more
significant consequences than the loss of the federal social security
system ever could.
And most importantly, the word conservative. For we must reclaim
that word conservative, take it back from those who long ago hijacked
it, and restore it to its true place. To understand what conservative
is, we must first understand what it is not. It is not about the
unfettered opportunity for the few to amass wealth at the expense
of the many. It is not about the unchecked exploitation of natural
resources for the benefit of the few at the expense of future
generations, and it is not about preaching “family values”
while pursuing policies which tear families all over the world
asunder. It is not about conducting unprecedented biological experiments
with our own citizens as the primary guinea pigs, it is not about
private ownership and patenting of genes that rightfully belong
to the commons of all living beings, and it is not about good
food for those few who can afford it and junk food for all the
rest. It is about the conservation of precious resources, the
respect of cherished values, and the preservation of our genetic
inheritance. Who could be more conservative than the organic farmer
who faithfully builds his/her soil, patiently learns and practices
his/her craft and carefully intertwines matter and spirit into
a whole enterprise with integrity? Who is more conservative than
the savers and preservers of the best open-pollinated seed varieties,
strains which are the products of ten thousand years of observation
and crop improvement? We must take back our heritage while we
still have time. And it all begins with the seed.
Let us heed these words from Oren Lyons, one of the faithkeepers
of the Onondaga Nation: “We were told that the seed is the
Law. Indeed, it is the Law of Life. It is the Law of Regeneration.
Within the seed is the mysterious and spiritual force of life
and creation. Our mothers nurture and guard that seed, and we
respect and love them for that, just as we love Mother Earth for
the same spiritual work and mystery.”(45)
Knowing that the issues we face cut right to the heart of our
relationship with all living beings, let us go forth to continue
the good work we have begun.
References to MOFGA Keynote Speech
1. In Good Tilth, Vol. 11, No. 2 as reported
in The Natural Farmer, Fall 2000, p.6.
2. In Good Tilth, Vol. 11, No. 2 as reported in The Natural
Farmer, Fall 2000, p.6.
3. ATTRA News, Apr. 2000, as quoted in The Maine Organic Farmer
& Gardener, Sept.-Nov. 2000, "Genetically Oddified
Morgue-anisms," by Jean English, p.2.
4. RMI Solutions, "Attack of the Genetically Modified Organisms,"
5. World Watch, July-Aug. 1999, p. 22, "The Emperor's New
Crops," by Brian Halweil.
6. Maine Organic Farmer and Gardener, July 2000 Special
Edition, p. 5. In a survey of over 8,000 field trials conducted
by the University of Wisconsin, Dr. Charles Benbrook found that
farmers growing Roundup Ready soy beans used 2-5 times more herbicide
per acre, yet got 5% fewer bushels per acre than those growing
conventional non-GE soy.
7. The New York Times, July 8, 2000, "Suburban Genetics:
Scientists Searching for a Perfect Lawn," by David Barboza,
reported in The Maine Organic Farmer and Gardener, Sept-Nov.
2000, p. 49.
8. IPS World News, May 4, 2000 by Danielle Knight, reported
in The Maine Organic Farmer and Gardener, Sept-Nov. 2000,
9. GeneWatch, July 2000, Vol 13, No.3, "Fishy Engineering,"
by Kimberly Wilson, p.1.
10. GeneWatch, 7/2000, Vol 13, No.3, "Fishy Engineering,"
by Kimberly Wilson, p. 4.
11. GeneWatch, Sept. 2000, Vol 13, No.4, "Biotech
Regulation under Attack," by Bette Hilerman, p. 6.
12. The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, July 2000
Special Edition, p. 2.
13. World Watch, July-Aug.1999, "The Emperor's New
Crops," by Brian Halweil, p. 21
14. World Watch, July-Aug.1999, "The Emperor's New
Crops," by Brian Halweil, p. 21
15. FWD: Guest Editorial: "Giv. Vilsack and Genetically
Engineered Crops," by Jim Riddle, as appeared in Des
Moines Register, May 4, 2000.
16. FWD: Guest Editorial: "Giv. Vilsack and Genetically
Engineered Crops," by Jim Riddle, as appeared in Des
Moines Register, May 4, 2000.
17. New England Farmer, January 2000, "Bt in the
Hot Seat, again!" by Bill Pardee, p. 38.
18. The Observer, May 28, 2000, "GM Genes Jump Species
Barrier," by Anthony Barnett, as reported in The Maine
Organic Farmer and Gardener, Sept-Nov 2000, p. 48.
19. Scotland on Sunday, May 30, 2000 as reported in The
Maine Organic Farmer and Gardener, Sept-Nov. 2000, p. 48.
20. Western Producer Feb. 10, 2000, "Triple-Resistant
Canola Weeds Found in Alberta," by Mary MacArthur as reported
in The Maine Organic Farmer and Gardener, Sept-Nov. 2000,
21. BioDemocracy News, May 2000, No. 27 as reported in
The Maine Organic Farmer and Gardener, Sept-Nov 2000,
22. Seeds & Crops Digest, Aug/Sept. 2000, p. 34.
A University of Nebraska study showed Roundup Ready soybeans had
yields of 6-11% less than corresponding conventional varieties.
See also the University of Wisconsin study referenced in footnote
23. A study in a 1999 issue of the Journal of Medicinal Food,
Vol. 1 No. 4, indicates that compared with nonmodified soy varieties,
genetically-altered herbicide-tolerant varieties may contain lower
levels of potentially benefically plant estrogens.
24. The New York Times, Nov. 12, 1999, "Biotech
Companies Take on Critics of Gene-Altered Food," pp. 1, A18.
25. American Vegetable Grower, May 2000, "Got Biotech?"
by Jamie Gooch, p. 6.
26. The New York Times, May 16, 2000, "AstraZeneca
to Sell a Genetically Engineered Strain of Rice," by David
27. The text is slightly inaccurate. The correct quote from Dr.
Shiva is, "Women farmers in Bengal use more than 100 plants
for green leafy vegetables." Genetic Engineering News,
Feb. 15, 2000, referencing an article by Dr. Shiva entitled "Genetically
Engineered Vitamin A Rice: A Blind Approach to Blindness Prevention,"
which appeared at www.natural-law.ca/genetic on Feb. 14, 2000
as reported in The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener,
Sept-Nov. 2000, p. 50.
28. Acres USA, May 2000, "Rude Awakening" (An
Interview with Martha Crouch, Ph.D.) p. 31.
29. The New York Times, Science Times, Aug. 22, 2000,
"Simple Method Found to Increase Crop Yields Vastly,"
by Carol Kaesuk Yoon, P. D1.
30. Keynote speech by Michael Sligh of Rural Advancement Foundation
International at Common Ground Country Fair at Unity, ME on Sept.
31. The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, July 2000
Special Edition, p. 5.
32. Financial Times, Sept. 13, 1999 as quoted in The
Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, July 2000 Special Edition,
33. News from RAFI, July 17, 2000 E-Mail, "Earmarked
for Extinction? Seminis Eliminates 2,000 varieties."
34. News from RAFI, July 17, 2000 E-Mail, "Earmarked
for Extinction? Seminis Eliminates 2,000 varieties." Seminis
announced its "global restructuring and optimization plan"
on June 28, 2000.
35. See Fact Sheet "Why USDA's Technology Protection System
(AKA 'Terminator') Benefits Agriculture" on USDA website
for their convoluted rationale.
36. The address is: Farmer Cooperative Genome Project, Oregon
Tilth Research and Education, 30848 Maple Drive, Junction City,
OR 97448, or J.J. Haapala (541) 998-3069.
37. His address is: 1878 230th St., Calamus, IA 52729.
38. The information is outdated. I understand that Tim Peters
has taken a job in the conventional seed trade and has had to
suspend his independent research and breeding in the interim.
39. His address is: Echo Hills Rd., PO Box 509, Philomath, OR
40. For a booklet with names and addresses of all the signees,
write Kimberly Wilson, Council for Responsible Genetics, 5 Upland
Rd., Cambridge, MA 02140 or call (617) 868-0870.
41. Co-op Voices Unite, Blue Hill Food Coop, Box 1133, Blue Hill,
ME 04614 (207) 359-2282 has the best list I've seen of some brands
to avoid (processed foods which have tested postive for the presence
of genetically engineered ingredients) and brands to embrace (companies
that eschew GMOs in their products).
42. His address is Dan Glickman, Secretary of Agriculture, US
Department of Agriculture, 200-A Whitten Bldg., 1400 Independence
Ave. SW, Washington, DC 20250, or call (202) 720-3631, fax (202)
43. Portland Press Herald, Aug. 17, 2000, "King
Wants Tougher Rules for Citizen Referendums." by Paul Carrier.
44. The 1996 clearcutting referendum attracted the extraordinarily
high total of 596,874 voters (way more than the 421,009 who voted
in the 1998 gubernatorial election) and barely shy of the 1996
presidential vote of 605,897.
45. Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Onondage Nation of the Haudenosanunee,
as quoted in the 2000 Abudant Life Seed Foundation catalog, p.
Helpful Periodicals and Websites
The Campaign for Food Safety, 860 Highway 61, Little Marais,
MN 55614 (218) 226-4164 www.purefood.org Public interest organization
whose primary interest is in safeguarding our food.
The Campaign to Label GE Foods www.thecampaign.org has instant
form letters to print and send to government officials urging
them to label GE food. Citizen action is only a click away!
Fedco Seeds, PO Box 520, Waterville, ME 04903 (207) 426-9900.
Annual seed catalog addresses seed industry issues and includes
good resource directory.
The Gene Exchange, Direct Mail Administrator, UCS, 2 Brattle
Square, Cambridge, MA 02238-9105, telephone (617) 547-5552, fax
(617) 864-9405. www.ucsusa.org Newsletter of the Union of Concerned
Scientists critiques the biotech industry using rigorous scientific
analysis. No knee-jerk here.
Genetic Engineering and its Dangers userwww.sfsu.edu/~rone/gedanger.htm,
compiled by Dr. Ron Epstein at San Francisco State University
has a wide range of good essays relating to GE and is a good place
to start your GE education.
GeneWatch , a bulletin of the Council for Responsible
Genetics, the folks who put out the Safe Seed Pledge. Much useful
info, strictly partisan. 5 Upland Rd., Suite 3, Cambridge, MA
Hort Ideas, Greg/Pat Williams, 750 Black Lick Rd.,
Gravel Switch, KY 40328, Useful news for gardeners and farmers,
lately much thought-provoking coverage of terminator and traitor
Mothers for Natural Law, PO Box 1177, Fairfield, IA 52526 (515)
472-2809, www.safe-food.org operates a public awareness campaign
on the dangers of GE foods. A good place to find out about which
brands have GMOs and which are GMO-free.
NERAGE (Northeast Resistance Against Genetic Engineering) operates
out of the Institute for Social Ecology, 1118 Maple Hill Rd.,
Plainfield, VT 05667 (802) 454-8493, http://ise.rootmedia.org
links local activists in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont for
RAFI (Rural Advancement Foundation International) , PO Box 670,
Pittsboro, NC 27312. Call (919) 542-1396. www.rafi.org. A leading
international non-governmental organization advocating for small
and medium-size farmers. Responsible for naming 'terminator technology'
and always at the cutting edge of the movement to rein in biotechnology
and hold the giant corporations accountable.
Science News, Science Service, 1719 N St. NW, Washington,
DC 20036. Keep up with the latest developments in the biotech
field. Short reports, easily accessible, neutral.
Seed & Crops Digest, 2302 W. 1st, Cedar Falls,
IA 50613. A more progressive industry perspective than that found
in Seed World. Believes biotech is here to stay but should be
labeled because the future is in value-added identity-preserved
Seed Savers Exchange, 3076 North Winn Rd, Decorah, IA 52101,
phone (319) 382-5990, fax (319) 382-5872. For the last 25 years
at the front lines of the battle to preserve our genetic heritage.
1,000 members preserve thousands of varieties; thousands more
maintained at the organization's Heritage Farm. Three publications
a year, lately have been outspoken about the evils of genetic
engineering and the consolidation of the seed trade.
Seed World, 380 E. NW Highway, Des Plaines, IL 60016-2282.
Here's the industry perspective, parroting the ASTA (American
Seed Trade Association) and biotech party line.
Small Farm Today, 393 W. Ridge Trail Rd., Clark, MO.
65243-9525. The Apr-May 1999 issue contains an invaluable report
by Dr. William Heffernan, Dept. of Rural Sociology at the University
of Missouri entitled "Consolidation in the Food and Agricultural
System." Best analysis of the food system I've yet found.
Against the Grain: Biotechnology and the Corporate Takeover
of Your Food, Marc Lappé and Britt Bailey. Common
Courage Press, 1998.
Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge, by
Vandana Shiva, South End Press, 1997, 148 pages.
The Biotech Century: Harnessing the Gene and Remaking the
World, by Jeremy Rifkin, Putnam, 1998, 272 pages.
Farmageddon: Food and the Culture of Biotenchnolgy,
Brewster Kneen, New Society Publishers, 1999. 231 pages, $16.95.
Genetically Engineered Food: Changing the Nature of Nature,
Martin Teitel and Kimberly Wilson, Park Street Press, 1999, 144
Genetic Engineering, Food and Our Environment: A Brief Guide,
by Luke Anderson, 1999, 159 pages.
Milk: The Deadly Poison, by Robert Cohen, Argus, 1997.
Spoiled: The Dangerous Truth about a Food Chain Gone Haywire,
by Nichols Fox, Penguin Putnam, 1998.
Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply,
by Vandana Shiva, South End Press, 1999, 140 pages.