Silent in flannel shirts and ponytails, farmers from Saskatchewan and South Dakota, Mississippi and Massachusetts lined the walls of a packed federal courtroom in Manhattan last week, as their lawyers told a judge that they were no longer able to keep genetically modified crops from their fields.
The hearing is part of a debate that is coming to life around the country, in courtrooms and Occupy sites, in boardrooms and online, with new petitions, ballot initiatives and lawsuits from California to Maine.
Last year, according to the Department of Agriculture, about 90 percent of all soybeans, corn, canola and sugar beets raised in the United States were grown from what scientists now call transgenic seed. Most processed foods (staples like breakfast cereal, granola bars, chicken nuggets and salad dressing) contain one or more transgenic ingredients, according to estimates from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, though the labels don't reveal that. (Some, like tortilla chips, can contain dozens.)
Common ingredients like corn, vegetable oil, maltodextrin, soy protein, lecithin, monosodium glutamate, cornstarch, yeast extract, sugar and corn syrup are almost always produced from transgenic crops.
No known health risks are associated with eating transgenic foods (though many scientists say it is too soon to assess the effects), and the Food and Drug Administration classifies them as safe.
But consumer resistance to transgenic food remains high. In a nationwide telephone poll conducted in October 2010 by Thomson Reuters and National Public Radio, 93 percent said if a food has been genetically engineered or has genetically engineered ingredients, it should say so on its label – a number that has been consistent since genetically modified crops were introduced. F.D.A. guidelines say that food that contains genetically modified organisms, or G.M.O.'s, don't have to say so and can still be labeled “all natural.”
In California, voters in November will decide on a ballot initiative requiring the labeling of such foods. In October, an online campaign called Just Label It began collecting signatures and comments on a petition to the F.D.A., requesting rules similar to those in the European Union, Japan, China, India and Australia, stating what transgenic food is in the package. (For example, an ingredients list might say “genetically engineered corn” instead of just “corn.”) Six hundred thousand Americans have commented, according to the group.
“You don't have to be a technophobe or think corporations are evil to not want G.M.O.'s in your food,” said Ashley Russell, a college student who attended a rally sponsored by Food Democracy Now after the Manhattan court hearing.
In traditional plant breeding, plants are bred with related organisms to encourage certain naturally occurring traits. In transgenic breeding, genetic material from unrelated organisms can be introduced to create new traits, like resistance to drought, herbicides or pests. For the most part, the spread of transgenic seeds into the American food supply has been purposeful, carried out by farmers and scientists who see enormous advantages in hardier plants.
In January, Bill Gates devoted most of his annual letter on agriculture from the Gates Foundation to the need for advanced technology. He later said that most people who object to transgenic agriculture live in rich nations, responsible for climate change that he believes has caused malnutrition for the poor.
For many in the food industry, including big players like Whole Foods, the dairy collective Organic Valley and Stonyfield Farm, the inevitability of transgenic food was cemented last year, when the Agriculture Department deregulated a new alfalfa created by Monsanto, the largest producer of genetically modified seed in the United States, despite furious lobbying by the organic industry. Alfalfa, which has a strong tendency to drift from one field to another, is grown as feed for millions of dairy cows, making it one of the country's largest crops. Transgenic alfalfa cannot be used to feed cows that produce organic milk.
“We have understood for a long time that there is potential for contamination of organic food through pollen drift,” said A. C. Gallo, co-president and chief operating officer of Whole Foods. After the “disappointing” alfalfa decision, he said, the company decided to focus more efforts on labeling transgenic food, rather than trying to stop or slow its arrival into the food supply.
The company, along with others like Nature's Path, Eden Foods and Lundberg Family Farms, is a major funder (and customer) of the Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit verification service that does lab testing and provides certification for food producers. Organic farmers are responsible for testing their own crops for contamination, and for keeping transgenic pollen and seeds off their land. The Agriculture Department recommends that organic farmers leave a “buffer zone” between their crops and neighboring farms, but that can prove expensive and ineffective.
“Pollen and DNA do not play by the U.S.D.A.'s rules,” said Elizabeth Archerd, a director of a Minneapolis food co-op, the Wedge, that supports labeling of transgenic food.
That is why farmers like Bryce Stephens of Jennings, Kan., made the trip to New York last week.
“I don't raise corn anymore,” he said, because the prevailing wind on his farm had contaminated his crop with transgenic seed. Without the resources to devote land to a buffer zone, he said that the alfalfa he grows to feed his herd of organic bison would soon be contaminated by his neighbors' crops.
Like Mr. Stephens, most of the farmers in the Manhattan courtroom were plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit filed last year by the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association against Monsanto. The plaintiffs, none of whom use Monsanto seeds, say that they are afraid that the company will take legal action against them if its patented products appear in their fields. (Monsanto has asserted its agricultural patents in hundreds of lawsuits, most of which have been settled.)
But the real issue here is not patent law; it's contamination. The point made by the suit is that, according to the regulations that govern American agriculture, it's these unwilling farmers who must prevent Monsanto's products from trespassing onto their land.
The company has moved to dismiss the suit, claiming that the plaintiffs lack standing because Monsanto has taken no action against them. The judge, Naomi R. Buchwald, said she would rule on the motion to dismiss by March 31.
Increasingly, though, organic and transgenic seeds are coexisting on American farmland. Last year, the Agriculture Department said that crops would not necessarily lose their organic status if they were found to have some transgenic content.
For consumers, this means that transgenic ingredients may be present in the organic staples they pay a premium for.
“That's absolutely not what organic buyers want, and not what they are paying for,” Ms. Archerd said.
This article, “Modified Crops Tap a Wellspring of Protest,” originally appeared in The New York Times.