Driving east out of Raleigh, early stands of green corn fronds and flaxen wheat stretch for miles. Tropical Storm Andrea has spread gunpowder clouds across the sky and lifts a breeze that sends random patterns rippling through the fields. The closer you get to the coast, the harder farmers must work to bring their crops to maturation early—a September hurricane can mean the loss of everything.
U.S. Highway 64 cuts across the Scuppernong River into Columbia, a small town on the banks of Bull Bay in the Albermarle Sound. Those who don't farm fish. Others try to scrape off a few dollars from tourists passing through toward Manteo and the Outer Banks.
At the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge center in downtown Columbia, 50 local farmers convened last Thursday after hearing rumors of a federal ban on genetically modified crops—a form of genetically modified organism or GMO. Nearly 90 percent of all corn and soybeans—two of North Carolina's most extensively farmed crops—grown in the U.S. are genetically modified. These men felt their livelihoods were at stake.
For most of them, it wasn't. The meeting was called to consider the use of GMCs only on national wildlife refuges. Fewer than 10 of the farmers present grow crops on refuges. Only 44,000 acres (just 1 percent of the 4 million acres of national wildlife refuge land) is used for farming.
GMCs, which are almost exclusively produced by Monsanto and DuPont, have been temporarily banned on national wildlife refuges in the Southeast, such as nearby Pocosin Lakes and Alligator River. The ban is the result of a recent lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which failed to conduct a proper environmental impact study when it began allowing the cultivation of GMCs in the 1990s.
Similar lawsuits permanently blocked the use of GMCs on refuges in the Northeast. The meeting, one of six across the region, ensures that proper public input guidelines are being met, as the Fish and Wildlife Service revisits the issue of growing GMCs.
Clad in polo shirts, blue jeans and ball caps, the farmers filled the seats in the conference room. Andrew Gentile, a contractor with EMPSi, which facilitates public meetings, stood behind a lectern, tasked with providing answers.
Gentile [pronounced gen-TEEL] may not have realized how near the crowd was to mutiny. One man, Dan Weatherington, had already been on a local radio show that day highlighting the crucial role that GMCs would play in allowing farmers to feed an overpopulated world. Someone else sent out an inaccurate press release, stating that GMCs might be banned nationwide, a wildlife officer told me.
Halfway through Gentile's Powerpoint presentation, which hadn't yet addressed the question of a GMO ban, one farmer blurted out, "Are we going to be able to ask questions?!"
Gentile tried to wrap up the presentation by asking farmers to file their comments about GMCs online or in a box at the back of the room. The farmers, who were no closer to understanding how much their method of farming was being threatened, let out exasperated sighs.
"Can you speak about the lawsuit that seemed to originate this?" asked a farmer. "None of us know what you're talking about."
"This is the biggest bunch of horseshit I've ever seen," said an older farmer in a blaze orange hat at the back of the room. "This is government run amuck."
"It's really hard to conceive that you're talking about not using genetically modified on these few small stretches of land when it's being used everywhere else," said Isaac Boerema, who, at 29, looked to be the youngest farmer in the room. "There's not one documented case that shows it to be unsafe."
That phrase—"not one documented case"—seemed to be used by nearly every farmer in his defense of genetically modified farming. Research on GMCs is murky. Some studies have suggested GMCs cause cancer in rats and might alter human DNA, but those studies have been widely discredited.
GMCs, however, have led to the birth of "superweeds," which are resistant to currently available chemicals. This leads to the invention of new herbicides by the private companies that sell GMCs and has been called the "chemical treadmill."
"There are no problems—zero—for humans related to GMOs at this time," says Bill Thompson, who specializes in plant genomics at N.C. State University. "There has been a lot of hype on this and a lot of misinformation."
(Since 2007, Monsanto has donated more than $1.1 million in grants to N.C. State for plant breeding and applied genomics programs.)
Thompson is right in regard to publicly known effects on humans, but some scientists have suggested that the body of scientific evidence on GMCs is too small to conclusively prove they do no harm.
The Food and Drug Administration does not require food safety testing, which is mandatory in several other countries. GMCs, as well as food products containing them, aren't required to undergo strenuous testing.
The American Medical Association called for mandatory pre-market safety testing of genetically engineered foods last year.
Both Thompson and environmentalists agree that the vast amount of research is done by private companies and, therefore, is geared toward producing GMCs that feed the companies' bottom lines. Publicly funded research would likely focus on genetic engineering that provides higher yields and more nutritional value.
"That's something for which I blame the federal government," Thompson says.
GMCs provide an economic incentive for farmers. Charles Fletcher, who grows crops on refuges, says the ban is costing him three times as much money in chemicals. Before the ban, he says he grew Roundup Ready soybeans, manufactured by Monsanto, which he says require fewer herbicides. Roundup Ready crops are genetically engineered to withstand the herbicide glyphosate, which kills the weeds but leaves the crops unharmed.
(Recent analysis in the peer-reviewed journal Entropy concludes that glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup, can harm human health.)
Fletcher and the other farmers aren't paid to farm the refuge land. When they harvest their soybeans and corn, they leave roughly 25 percent of the harvest behind. This is used as supplemental food for the migratory waterfowl that winter in wetland sanctuaries.
One of the farmers ended the meeting on a fatalistic note: "While you're doing this study, can you learn how to train the geese not to fly onto private land next to the refuge and eat the GMO corn that's there?"
This article appeared in print with the headline "Corporate harvest."