Third generation Yolo
County farmer Tim Miramontes is breaking new ground in fields 25 miles north
of Woodland. For the first time, he has planted genetically modified canola.
In a county where many farmers are still weighing the risks associated with GMOs (genetically modified organisms) before taking up sides, Miramontes is hoping the relatively new technology will help him with a age-old problem - weeds.
His Roundup Ready canola can withstand applications of Roundup, allowing Miramontes to spray his fields and kill some pesky broadleaf weeds without harming his crop. Often farmers try to treat the problem with 2, 4-D, an herbicide that can destroy a vegetable plant as well as the weeds around it.
Opponents of genetically engineered farming might say Miramontes, who also grows conventional rice, is putting other farmers at risk by planting GMOs.
One of the greatest concerns with GMOs is that they will contaminate conventional crops via cross pollination. That worry is so strong California rice growers, who export 40 percent of their product to Japan, have opted for strict regulations on GMO rice. Japan has some of the world's toughest policies regarding GMOs. In an effort to protect California's hold on the Japanese rice market, GMO rice has to be planted far from California's rice belt, milled separately and transported in separate vehicles.
Miramontes said he understands the concern and considered that when planting his canola. Even before planting the crop, he made sure it would not cross pollinate with nearby fields of mustard. If that occurred, area organic canola and mustard growers may be faced with genetic contamination and market loss.
Yolo County Agriculture Commissioner Rick Landon said canola and corn are small crops in the county, so the likelihood of such genetic contamination is not as great as it would be in other grain producing regions, like Saskatchewan and North Dakota where farmers have had to pay Monsanto for patented GMO corn they did not plant in their fields.
GMO crops are not tracked in Yolo County, according to Landon.
Those opposed to GMOs have launched Web sites, circulated petitions and are pushing for legislation nationwide in an effort to stop farmers and companies from planting the crops. One of the strongest efforts is Californians for GE-Free Agriculture, which has pushed for bans on GMOs in other counties.
Last November, four California counties considered banning genetically engineered crops. Voters in Marin County approved a ban with a 62 percent vote. Measures failed in San Luis Obispo, Butte and Humboldt counties. Mendocino County was the first to pass a ban in March 2004.
Other counties have taken action before the issue has had a chance to hit the ballot. The Tulare County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution last month affirming the right of farmers and ranchers to use the widest range of technologies available to produce a food. In their decision they cited a need to support the agriculture industry. Fresno, Kings and Kern counties have similar resolutions.
"I'd hate to see GMOs totally eliminated," said Yolo County Supervisor Duane Chamberlain.
Yolo County conventional farmers, organic growers and Landon may be able to hash out a means of regulating GMO crops in the county before it becomes a political debate.
"I do favor a lot of the GMOs because we could eliminate a lot of pesticides. But you've got to be careful because you have to contain it depending on what crop it is," said Chamberlain, who represents District 5, where most of the county's crops are grown. "We need to go back to good scientific research and be careful what we do."
The Yolo County Farm Bureau has yet to take a position on the use of GMOs.
"When you talk about GMOs, all of us have to get educated about it," said Yolo County Farm Bureau Past President Eric Paulsen. "We'd be on the cautious side."
A group of agriculturalists and researchers met at the bureau office last winter to discuss what could be done to please people on all sides of the issue in Yolo County. Paulsen said, at the time, some believed the GMO issue would be on Yolo County ballots in November.
"We haven't done anything at this point," said Landon, who has devised a plan to allow organic, conventional and GMO growers to coexist contentedly.
Landon's plan addresses concerns about genetic drift by making sure GMOs would not produce pollen when other crops are producing. Genetic draft can be addressed by creating two types of buffers: Space and time. A space buffer entails planting two crops far enough apart to ensure their pollen does not mingle and cause genetic havoc. A time buffer calls for planting crops at different times so they flower at different times, thereby eliminating the time during which the pollen could mingle.
It is like dividing girls and boys in a gym either by having all of the girls stand on one side of the gym and all of the boys stand on the other side. Or dividing girls and boys by having the girls use the gym on one day and the boys use it the next.
Time buffers are already used by seed growers in Yolo County, but Yolo County would be the first to use time to regulate GMOs, Landon said."It's not a foreign concept to us," he added.
Paulsen said the idea is just being discussed now as agriculturalists explore their options."I think you can come up with strict protocol that would sit well with everybody," he said. "With any new industry, you don't mind taking risks as long as you know the risks and benefits involved."
Scientists genetically engineer plants either by attacking normal cells with viruses and bacteria or by using pressure to imbed genes that express desired traits, like herbicide tolerant. The idea is to create plants with greater resistance to certain herbicides, thereby ridding their fields of weeds while maintaining a healthy crop.
GMO soybeans, cotton, corn and canola are currently grown nationwide. It is not yet commercially available, but scientists are working on modified alfalfa, said UC Davis researcher David Tricoli. According to the most recent county crop report, 55,914 acres of alfalfa were harvested in 2003, and it is the fourth top agricultural commodity in the county. If GMO alfalfa were grown in Yolo County, "we would want to address it," Landon said. FDA approved the use of GMOs in 1992. They are in about 60 percent of all processed foods."It's still a new thing to growers, and they're not sure how they feel about it," Landon said.
Miramontes said he was afraid his neighbors would dislike him growing GMOs near their crops even though there is no possibility for cross pollination because they are growing different crops.
"But they were fine with it. No one had a problem," he said.
In a few weeks, the tiny seeds housed in the thin canola pods in Miramontes's fields will turn black and be ready to harvest. Then they will be shipped to Europe, which is breaking new ground of its own as it is just beginning to open up to GMOs.
Eve Hightower. Seeds of change; County debate simmers over using GMO crops. Daily Democrat (May 18th, 2005) (http://www.dailydemocrat.com/search/ci_2738521) (reproduced with permission)