It’s a true grassroots movement: Across the U.S., citizens are lobbying their local governments to give organic farmers something they increasingly need—breathing room.
As a result, counties in California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii have passed ordinances outlawing the planting of GMO crops, varieties that are genetically modified to withstand chemical pesticides and sometimes even the pests themselves. These counties have essentially become large buffer zones protecting organic farms, as well as conventional farms that do not use GMOs, from contamination by airborne seeds and cross-pollination.
Residents of Costilla County, Colorado are the latest group to seek local protections for organic and traditional farms. As the local Pueblo Chieftan newspaper reports: “A proposed change to the Costilla County land-use code would ban the growing of genetically modified corn and alfalfa in the southern half of the county. Proponents of the move said it would protect heirloom crops such as white flint corn used to produce ‘chicos del horno’ and ‘pozol.’ It also would protect the local agriculture that has grown up along the acequias, or community irrigation ditches, that were dug by settlers from northern New Mexico in the 1850s.
“‘We have the oldest water rights in Colorado and the oldest heirloom seeds,’ Delmer Vialpando, president of the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association, said. ‘We are working to make sure both are protected.’”
The Costilla campaign shares characteristics with movements in several other American counties. In these cases, residents have joined with farmers to pressure elected officials, and have been aided in their efforts by the Washington-based Center for Food Safety. The Center’s help often proves invaluable in protecting a ban once it is passed. GMO bans in Jackson County, Oregon and on Hawaii’s Big Island were immediately challenged in the courts by GMO growers. The Jackson County ordinance survived the process, but the Hawaii ban is still tied up in the courts. The Big Island is being represented by the Center in its appeal of a lower court ruling.
One reason that counties have become involved in the issue is that there is no federal standard to regulate the geographic coexistence of organic and conventional fields. Organic farmers, however, must meet high standards for crop integrity in order to maintain an organic certification. Buffers separating their fields from adjacent GMO-planted land are required in areas where there is a mix of organic and conventional farms.
The buffers have an added benefit: protecting against chemical drift. This is not always a separate issue, as farmers who plant GMO seeds tend to spray their crops intensely with chemical compounds, most notably the herbicide Roundup.