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Farming into the Future in Sonoma County

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Farming into the Future in Sonoma County

By Vesta Copestakes

As we head toward making a decision on whether to allow GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) into our agricultural landscape, we are impacting the future of agriculture AND  our economy. Opening or closing the door to GMO food crops, in a way that will impact all crops grown in Sonoma County, will define what can and cannot be grown here since genetically modified plants spread seed and pollen far beyond the fence that contains them. 

We’re also considering laws on a related substance that is intricately connected to GMOs - Roundup® - also known as glyphosate. Why the connection? Because many genetically modified seeds and plants are what is called Roundup-Ready...they are resistant to the chemical that kills weeds. That connection between killing plants and the impacts on people is getting a lot of attention. 

Our Board of Supervisors has a choice of voting a GMO ban into law or letting it go to the November ballot. On Tuesday, May 24th - after we went to press - supervisors declined to vote on the ordinance as it stands, and passed it to voters in the November election.

In March 2015, glyphosate was declared to be a “probable human carcinogen.” It’s the primary ingredient in Roundup and is used heavily on GMO crops because they have been engineered to be resistant to it. You can spray an entire field to kill weeds but not harm the plant you want to keep alive…convenient for farmers for reducing competition for water.

This one fact has made it possible to increase yields and therefore feed animals and people, which is why it has become so prevalent. Between 1987 and 2012 our annual farm use grew from less than 11 million pounds to nearly 300 millions pounds. At this point this glyphosate is used in 160 countries and 1.4 BILLION pounds are applied every year. 

Nearly every corn, soy and cotton crop grown in the United States is treated with it. In California about five million acres are treated with glyphosate to grow almonds, peaches, onions, cantaloupe, cherries, sweet corn, citrus, grapes…wine grapes as well as table grapes, and other edible crops.

Why does this impact people? It becomes part of the food we eat, it gets into our soil and therefore into our water, but the immediate impact is on the people who spray it in the fields, farm workers and their families, and the people near those fields: homes, schools, etc. You can’t keep a spray limited to an area no matter how hard you try. It drifts on the wind. Studies found glyphosate in farm workers’ blood and urine, and chromosomal damage. 

How does it impact people? Research says it disrupts hormones and makes a person resistant to antibiotics. We’re always asking why cancer is so prevalent. Even children get cancer. It hits every person you know because someone in your life has cancer. Was it always this way and we just didn’t know, or is it getting worse? 

Why don’t we know more about those impacts?

It’s not on the radar for the US government testing food for pesticides residue or monitoring chemicals in blood and tissues. But because we measure chemicals, etc in waterways, its been found in the majority of rivers, streams, ditches and wastewater treatment plant discharges. It’s one of the things wastewater treatment cannot clean out of the water.

When people say it’s not found in groundwater, what researchers have found is that once it gets into the soil, it binds tightly with soil particles and doesn’t make it all the way to our groundwater supply. Which is one of the reasons farmers say Glyphosate does not harm our water supply. They are referring to our groundwater, not our surface water. But research is finding it in about 70% of samples from rainfall.  Complicated? Yes.

And what about food? About a decade ago, a local mulch and compost company discovered minute amounts of the broadleaf herbicide clopyralid in one of the mulches. The fact that clopyralids had been outlawed for commercial use in Sonoma County but was still showing up in their mulches set off alarms. Dairy cow manure was one of the ingredients used and they were purchasing it from organic dairy farms. How could this be? 

Turns out that organic dairy farms were buying feed from outside Sonoma County where laws were not in place against this herbicide, so it was coming here on a truck to feed dairy cows. Those cows manure was a key ingredient in organic mulches. If it’s in their manure - is it in their milk?  The mulch company had to find dairies that could guarantee clean manure.

At this point the State of California has labeled Roundup a carcinogen - cancer-causing. The Netherlands, Sweden, France and Brazil have petitioned the EU to not renew licensing for the product. 

“We won’t take risks with glyphosate and we don’t think that the analysis done so far is good enough. …We are raising concerns because our citizens are raising concerns. They want to feel safe and secure with food and production in our society.” ~ Swedish environment minister, Åsa Romson.

All this leads back the fact that some of our neighboring counties have banned the use of GMO crops and others have not.  In our world of competitive marketing - do we ban glyphosate AND GMO crops so people will continue to eat our food and drink our wines? Or do we not ban them so that we can remain economically competitive when up against less expensive farming practices that force the cost of our products higher than nearby markets?

If the rest of the world is looking at Roundup and GMO crops as too dangerous to use on farms and the food we eat, then here in Sonoma County where a huge part of our economy is based upon the quality of our farmed products, the GMO ordinance before the Board of Supervisors now - and potentially on the November ballot, may be ready for voter approval.