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Guest opinion: GMO plants alarm farmers

Farming has been in my family since my ancestors made a life on the rolling hills and pine forests west of Spokane some four generations ago.  

When I recently went to my local seed dealer to pick up grass and alfalfa seed for spring planting, I had to ask myself and the dealer, “Were these seeds genetically engineered?”  The answer was “no,” but the question is more important now that more GE crops are released, and both the seeds and crops they produce go unmarked as different from traditional crops.

Lately, I am inspired to hear of local people working to label genetically engineered crops and food through Initiative 522, which will be on the November ballot in Washington, and will help us make better choices about our food.

  Although many things have changed on our farm, the commitment to growing quality food for this region has not.  In my 30-plus years working the land, we have practically ended the loss of topsoil to erosion, eliminated chemical sprays, and greatly reduced dependency on fossil fuels while helping meet an increasing demand for grass-fed beef and heirloom grains like wheat and barley.  

An heirloom seed is one that is passed down by generations of farmers and gardeners in ways that allow the seed to adapt to extreme weather, diseases and pests.  Such seeds are thoroughly tested by nature and society and selected for their benefits.

While many new ideas and tools have been used in farming over the centuries, genetically engineered seeds raise many concerns.  Although used in production for around 20 years, this technology has yet to stand the test of time, which helps us decide if we can rely on it or not.

From Idaho, test plots of GE bentgrass spread seed into rural counties of Oregon, where the grass is spreading in irrigation canals. Because this grass is engineered to survive herbicide sprays, growers have a new challenge. Now, these farmers face an unwanted invader in their fields that does not play by the rules of nature.

If these genetically engineered seeds spread into my fields and crossbreed with heirloom crops, generations of traditional seed-saving will be forever compromised, with unknown consequences. I’m concerned that once new GMO plants are released into the fields, there may be no way to recall them later when problems develop. Most crops will crossbreed on the wind or by insect pollinators, so if my neighbor plants GE alfalfa, it won’t take long for these unproven and unwelcome species to spread into my fields.

Many of my customers insist on buying non-GMO foods, and have confidence that my crops are uncontaminated. If they can’t find it here, they will look elsewhere for GMO-free food, and will have to purchase from regions, perhaps other countries, where GMOs are labeled or prohibited.

As we wonder what effect genetically engineered products have on human and livestock health, there are many questions regarding how GE crops impact the world we depend on. What long-term effect will this experiment have on bees, ladybugs and countless other creatures that make up life as we know it?  

If GE crops crossbreed unchecked, how will farmers who want to continue their time-tested practices purchase the heirloom seeds they need to get food on the table?  GE food crops are experimental and their long-term effects on the natural world unknown.  We who farm the land now and in the future should not be forced to grow these experimental crops or their cross-bred cousins: We should have a choice.  

The citizens of Washington should not be fooled. We have a right to know what’s going into our food and how it is grown. Foods are already labeled in a variety of ways to inform us, and protect our health. By labeling genetically engineered foods, we can also protect our future well-being.

 Our farms’ livelihood depends on people and all living things finding a healthy balance.  By labeling genetically engineered foods we help ourselves and future generations to make sound choices. Let us take this opportunity to support I-522 for the right to choose what we grow and what we feed our families.

Seth Williams is a fourth-generation farmer of 1,100 acres near Edwall, Wash.


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