Parallel universes: A rice farmer’s point of view on U.S.-European GMO attitudes

By Greg Massa

I’m a California rice farmer, but recently in Germany I was a rock star.

Or at least that’s what it felt like. Oddly, my celebrity status came from a speech I gave to European farmers about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). I’ve spoken and written on this topic numerous times here in the U.S., but never received anything like the welcome I got in Germany.

massaFirst, some background. I’m the fourth generation of my family to plant rice in California, so I have some stake in this industry. (That's me on the right in the photo, standing in my rice fields with a visiting Thai journalist farmer.) I’m the president of a farmer group called Rice Producers of California and on the board of the California Rice Commission (CRC), a complicated, quasi-governmental trade organization that purports to represent the entire rice industry but in reality does little for farmers. In December 2003, I attended a meeting of the CRC in which a small biotech firm called Ventria Bioscience gave a presentation on a genetically modified rice variety that they were planning to grow. Ventria had inserted human DNA into rice, thereby making the rice produce two proteins found in human breast milk, tears, and saliva. Their plan was to grow and harvest the rice, and then extract the proteins from the grains. (See SF Chronicle story.) The proteins would then be used in anti-diarrheal medicines.

Interesting stuff, right? From a scientific perspective: yes, very cool. But from a “Do I want drugs in my Rice Krispies?” point of view, scary.

You see, the problem is that there is no way to contain the genes that get inserted into a GMO crop plant. Through nature’s mechanisms of cross pollination and seed dispersal, or simply through human error, the genes spread. They can contaminate food crops with things you don’t want in food — say, for example, human saliva proteins masquerading as anti-diarrheal drugs.

This CRC meeting made me into an anti-GMO activist overnight. Ventria was putting a $500 million American industry at risk to grow 120 acres of their pharmaceutical rice. They were threatening my family’s livelihood, and my heritage, and they had to be stopped.

Against the grain

To make a long story short, we succeeded. A tiny handful of farmers, with some valuable background support from other groups, eventually forced Ventria to leave California and plant their rice elsewhere — the one aspect of the outcome I’m not happy with. Outside of our small group, nobody thought it could be done. Even we doubted it. The California Rice Commission showed itself to be very pro-biotech at the expense of farmers. They sided with Ventria again and again, and even voted to allow Ventria to plant their rice. Thankfully, the public outcry following the CRC vote forced the California Secretary of Agriculture to deny Ventria’s planting scheme.

Our victory was sweet, and I’m extremely proud of it. But it came at significant cost to me personally. The fight was a full-time job and took much time away from my young family and our farm. I edited press releases at midnight. My phone rang constantly with journalists looking for a quote. I was alternately ignored, threatened with lawsuits, and bullied in public and private meetings. The stress was immense, and it took a toll on my life and relationships. A friend and ally in this fight had his tires slashed repeatedly and found dead animals on his doorstep.

massa_germanyThis is why I was so very surprised at the reaction I received to my story in Germany. I had been asked by a group called the Small Farmers of Germany to do a short speaking tour about U.S. perceptions toward GMO crops. I jumped at the chance to go, mainly because I like to travel, not because I felt a burning desire to discuss GMOs. The trip was fast and furious — five cities in five days, with talks every night. I spoke to farmers, beekeepers, academics, and activists. In a small farming village outside Dresden, 180 people showed up to a meeting where they originally expected 30. In another meeting, the people listening to my speech didn’t just applaud when I finished, they cheered.

Old World, new fights

Everywhere I went, I found people to be aware of the problem posed by GMO crops and very engaged in finding solutions. There are 186 GMO-free regions in Germany, and thousands of farmers have signed pledges not to grow GMOs or feed them to their animals. Farmers and community members blockade fields that are slated for GMO field trials so that they can’t be planted. Unlike the U.S., Germany requires that field trial locations be publicly disclosed. If the GMO seeds actually make it into the ground, the people rip them out. A citizen doing these sorts of thing in the U.S. would likely find themselves being prosecuted under the Patriot Act.

The difference between German and American attitudes towards GMOs couldn’t be more stark. American farmers planted an estimated 130 million acres of GMO cotton, corn and soy in 2007, and like the fact that herbicide-tolerant GMOs let them unthinkingly spray Roundup on their crops. One farmer told me that it lets you “farm dumb” so that you don’t actually need to think about farming anymore. In fact, it appears that convenience is the primary reason farmers continue to use biotech seed, as there are no crops that have been genetically engineered for higher yields. Like any herbicide that sees repeated use, however, Roundup is losing its efficacy, as weeds evolve tolerance to the chemical. In fact, according to this BioTech InfoNet report (PDF), GMOs have led to a 4% increase in pesticide use since their introduction in 1996.

Yet American consumers seem largely unaware of GMOs, or the fact that most processed foods in the US contain GMO corn or soy. As reported by the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers University (PDF):

…the American public is generally unaware of GM food. Most Americans have heard or read little about it, are not aware of its prevalence in their lives, and are confused as to which type of GM products are available. Respondents struggled with factual questions related to GM food and the science behind it, could not recall news stories related to the topic, and were not very knowledgeable about laws regarding the labeling and testing of GM food. Americans are also unsure of their opinions about GM food and split in their assessments of the technology when forced to take a position.

German consumers on the other hand, resoundingly reject GMO-tainted food, and there has actually been some research done on the difference between German and American acceptance of biotech foods. It appears that we Americans place more trust in our private and public institutions than do Germans, and we have a lower appreciation for nature. Both of these topics are predictors for acceptance of GM food.

The US Government actively promotes GMO crops at home and abroad. Two weeks before my trip to Germany, the U.S. Embassy had been touring with two biotech cheerleader-farmers. When we forced Ventria to leave California, the state of Kansas offered them millions of taxpayer dollars to relocate there.

Thankfully, the California rice industry is still GMO-free, though we’ve been lucky. After Ventria, we dealt with another problem with biotech rice — the accidental contamination of U.S. Southern long-grain rice (NOT California rice) with an unapproved line of GMO herbicide-tolerant rice. Almost immediately after the contamination was announced, Europe and Japan stopped importing U.S. long-grain rice entirely. The resulting market fallout has cost U.S. rice farmers well over $1 billion in lost sales, proving many of the arguments we used against Ventria. These two incidents have caused an almost 180-degree switch in industry attitudes about biotechnology since that first CRC meeting in 2003.

But despite the progress, I’m tired from five years of fighting this issue, and the threats just keep coming. The CRC is again planning to allow field trials of GMO rice this year, despite repeated calls from farmers to ban such trials in California rice, and the fact that allowing field trials violates the commission’s own biotechnology policy.

It’s frustrating to wage this battle here in California, but at least in Germany, I’m a rock star.

Greg Massa and his wife, Raquel — both tropical ecologists and conservationists — grow organic rice for Massa Organics Rice.

To learn more about the use of biotechnology in our food supply, and/or do something about it, start by contacting the Center For Food Safety or Californians for GE Free Agriculture. A great recent book on the subject is “Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds” by Claire Hope Cummings.

15 Responsesto “Parallel universes: A rice farmer’s point of view on U.S.-European GMO attitudes”

  1. Agnès says:

    Dear Greg,
    First of all, a big THANK YOU for your work.
    A second thank you for looking at the situation in Europe. I live in Holland, neigbouring Germany. Here, we have a tiny debate on GMOs too. Here, the fact that GMOs are so widely used outside Europe is used as an argument to introduce GMOs here as well.

    Great story. And good luck.
    Regards.

  2. HMS Nerd says:

    My understanding is that, especially when it comes to rice, careful cultivation technique is a much more effective pest-control and yield maximizing solution than opting for more expensive GMO strains.  It seem approaching ironic that there's a marketing apparatus trying to to hook the traditionally most self-sufficient worker demographic: farmers. 

    GMO proliferation wouldn't be so worrisome if introduction into limited portions of the food supply chain was accompanied by the potential for careful and intensive monitoring of effects.  As it is now, in the US, at least, the FDA struggles to monitor "normal" food: http://www.newsy.com/videos/is_the_fda_broken/

    One solution people are talking about on the regulation side is separating the F and the D functions.

  3. Susan says:

    Thank you for all your work. With the bad news one hears daily about our food supply, it is heartening to hear of somone like you who has devoted so much time and energy to protecting our food.

  4. I wanted to mention that the Benbrook study cited in this post (claiming a 4% increase in pesticide use due to GE crops) has been widely criticized for leaving out pesticides where the use has gone down in connection to GE crops. Before the GE crops, farmers were using different, often more dangerous herbicides, and switching to glyphosate has been an improvement. Not ideal, IMO, but an improvement.
    This report tells a different story:
    http://www.isaaa.org/resources/publications/briefs/39/executivesummary/default.html
    Conventional agriculture has impacted significantly on the environment and biotechnology can be used to reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture. Progress in the first decade includes a significant reduction in pesticides, saving on fossil fuels, and decreasing CO2 emissions through no/less ploughing, and conserving soil and moisture by optimizing the practice of no till through application of herbicide tolerance. The accumulative reduction in pesticides for the period 1996 to 2007 was estimated at 359,000 metric tons of active ingredient (a.i.), a saving of 9% in pesticides, which is equivalent to a 17.2% reduction in the associated environmental impact of pesticide use on these crops, as measured by the Environmental Impact Quotient (EIQ) – a composite measure based on the various factors contributing to the net environmental impact of an individual active ingredient. The corresponding data for 2007 alone was a reduction of 77,000 metric tons a.i. (equivalent to a saving of 18% in pesticides) and a reduction of 29% in EIQ (Brooks and Barfoot, 2009, forthcoming).

    Now you might say, 'ah ha! That comes from an industry-related group.' So here's the USDA report on the first ten years of GE crops. (Go to page 13)
    http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/eib11/eib11.pdf
    Cotton herbicides have gone down, Soybean herbicides have stayed the same, and corn herbicides have gone down. But most dramatically, pesticides used on corn have gone down dramatically - from 0.2 lb/acre to 0.08 lb/acre!
    The best way to an informed dialogue on any controversial topic is to first be informed.

  5. Dave says:

    Greg, I love your rice. Just tonight, my fiancee was extremely hungry for shrimp tacos. As hungry as she was, she wanted to wait for me to make your delicious brown rice.

    After reading this article, I'm now proud to continue to support you, your family, your farm -- and your cause. Thank you for fighting the fight that most of us don't even know should be fought. We really appreciate it. Future generations will as well.

  6. Hey Greg - thanks for this fascinating perspective on GMOs.  Though it's disheartening to hear a rice farmer say, "One [U.S.] farmer told me that it lets you 'farm dumb' so that you don’t actually need to think about farming anymore," recognizing and promoting the viability of small-scale, family farmers practicing sustainable agriculture is essential.

    My name is Bennett Haynes and I work for Surin Farmers Support, the organization that works with P Samrat, one of the farmers that met with you in the winter of 2007.  I was also excited to see your photo with P Ubon Yuwa.  He continues to coordinate northeastern Thailand's Alternative Agriculture Network and to support farmers in their resistance against GMOs here.  Please check out a recent article from our website - we also continue to coordinate efforts with ENGAGE, the student network that supported P Ubon and other farmers.  I'd love to get your thoughts on the potential for a exchange tour with our network here in Thailand, winter 2010.  Do you think California farmers would be interested?

    Thanks - Bennett

  7. Greg Massa says:

    Inoculated Mind:  Thanks for your comments.  I do consider myself quite informed, thank you very much.  As for your reports, you are correct that I do not trust industry reports.  I have had to correct industry scientists who should know better several times, and spent too much time rebutting false arguments to believe much of what they say anymore.  USDA reports are often no better.  The Economic Research Service that you cite puts out faulty supply and demand numbers for rice all the time, which causes marketplace swings that are out of line with reality.  In my opinion, USDA's  biotechnology position is promotion no matter the cost to farmers.  APHIS, the division of USDA which is supposed to oversee all GE research trials, is basically inept (see the long grain contamination story above), as noted in the Government Accountability Office report issued about a year ago.  And if I'm not mistaken, didn't the USDA decide to stop tracking pesticide use last year?  Even if pesticide use did dip, and I'm not saying it did, now we'll never know the long term trend.  As noted here on the Ethicurean, "Everything looks better when your head is in the sand."

    Don't kid yourself into thinking that those old pesticides (like 2,4-D and atrazine) aren't still around.  Farmers are going back to them now that millions of acres of farmland are infested with Roundup resistant weeds  Check out this very recent article from Southwest Farm Press:  Train wreck with weed resistance could be headed to Northeast Texas

    There are a whole host of other issues surrounding biotech crops that I object to, most notably patenting, liability, and the insane use of food crops for production of pharmaceuticals or industrial chemicals.  Pesticide use in biotech crops is actually only one of the problems for me.

  8. Greg Massa says:

    Agnes--keep up the resistance!  You haven't been polluted yet.

    Dave--thanks for being a customer!  I love hearing how people eat our rice.

    Bennett--Thanks for pointing out Ubon in the first photo--who, by the way, is a farmer, not a journalist.  Please contact me directly via my website and we can talk about your tour.

  9. Thank you for a very thought provoking post.  I am not against GMOs out of hand, but do have some concerns.  Hearing Greg's story is another piece of the puzzle.  Thank you also, Inoculated Mind, for linking to some other information.

  10. marlow says:

    Your work is really compelling. Thank you for keeping attention on the health and future health of our public when so many in a position to do so choose to neglect what is ethical. It's frightening to  imagine bringing children into a world where it's difficult to avoid raising them on carcinogenic or potentially harmful foods. I hope there are millions more out there that feel the same way. Again: thank you.

  11. Strange, I submitted a reponse to Greg, but it did not appear. Are my comments getting through?

  12. Ah, looks like its working, I'll have to re-write my response. (D'oh)

    Greg, thanks for responding to my comment. I totally agree with you in the case of USDA pesticide use monitoring - I think it should continue. (Maybe that's something that the new USDA leaders can address).  But I find your response a little confusing. While you lament of the loss of valuable information by discontinuing this monitoring policy, you also express the opinion that this information is not valuable to you at all. You suggest that the USDA as a mere tool of the biotech industry. Don't you think that if we are to make conclusions about the state of pesticide use, we should use the best available data to form those conclusions?

    Organic agriculture and genetic engineering need not be at odds with each other; I heartily recommend that you read Tomorrow's Table by Pam Ronald and Raoul Adamchak. But as it stands, with the political lines currently drawn, organic agricultural organizations (while not necessarily the farmers) have decided that genetic engineering must end, and Benbrook works for the organic industry. You could make the exact same argument about the source that you cite, which is why I gave you one biotech industry source and one governmental source. In my opinion, we need to form conclusions based upon peer-reviewed scientific research, when available. (Benbrook's paper was not peer-reviewed and would likely not have made it through.) I can point you toward several studies, both old and recent. Did you know that BT corn in Spain completely eliminated pesticide use in the fields of some regions, while drastically reducing it in others?

    I would like to humbly suggest that you not promote the claim that GE crops increase pesticide use unless you have a reliable source for that claim.

    It is also good to note that herbicide tolerance is not new to GE crops. There are varieties of wheat that have been made tolerant to other herbicides through mutagenesis. Here a blind eye is being turned to the real problem in weed resistance - the lack of a consistent management strategy for all herbicide-tolerant crops regardless of the means of generating the tolerance.

    Finally, I think that pharmaceutical crops are a wholly different animal than Bt-corn or beta-carotene producing golden rice. While in the Ventria case I see little cause for safety alarm - we're talking about one protein from breastmilk, and another protein from saliva, other more problematic potential pharmaceutical crops may be down the road which merit pause. Personally, I think domesticating a non-food crop for the purpose of Pharm crops would be better than producing it in rice grains.

    I''m interested to find out how objecting to pharmaceutical GE crops becomes opposition to all forms of GE crops. Would you be willing to participate in a written interview post for a plant genetics group blog? The web address is http://www.biofortified.org You can email me at karl (AT) inoculatedmind [DOT] com.

    Regards,
    Karl

  13. Pardon, the first sentence in the fourth paragraph should read:

    It is also good to note that herbicide tolerance is not new with GE crops.

  14. kitschnfetish/kitschngreen says:

    1st of all I love the name: Ethicurian! Greg, I think your article is honest and of vital importance. It is incredible how slow the US is to recognize the potential devastation the industrialization of our food sources have already had on us. With the attempts of  casually adding ,genetically modified food, pesticides, and growth hormones into our diets it is insane the drug companies add the additional horror of  manipulating our crops into genetically tagged meds. Is it beyond the scope of reason. It is my opinion that Mr. Inoculated mind is either a mouth piece for these industries or he is too afraid to see the dangerous world we are a part of. Please people the planet supports us and we need to stop poisoning it , ourselves , our children. Thank you so much Greg and all the discerning individuals who would not throw caution and GMO seeds to the wind.
    Keep up the important work: feeding the people good, wholesome food along with the truth!
    Ticia Green/kitschnfetish

  15. M. Davis says:

    Good for you Gregg!  What you say is right on.
    To those of you who are pro GMO, could you please point me to an independent human (or animal) feeding trial.  I've asked this all over the web from the pro pundits, with no response.  Problems cannot be found if no one is doing independent testing, can they!  Yes, I know millions over the world eat GMOs, but I also know millions are sick, and allergies are on the rise since GMOs have been introduced.  And don't tell me allergies are caused by people being too hygenic.  That is not a scientific study either.  I think sickness and allergies are caused by GMOs.  Prove me wrong.