An Interview with Tom Stearns
Written onJune 01 , 2008
High Mowing Organic Seeds is a thriving Vermont company that sells to gardeners and farmers around the country. In January, High Mowing became one of four plaintiffs in a lawsuit that asks the federal government to postpone the release of genetically modified (GMO) sugar beets until a more rigorous environmental analysis is done. (Sugar beets are used to make sugar; table beets are the ones we eat.) Tom Stearns, founder and president of High Mowing Seeds, talked with Local Banquet about his company’s decision to join the lawsuit. – Caroline Abels
Why are people concerned about GMO sugar beets?
In the Willamette Valley of Oregon, there’s a lot of organic seed production for beets and Swiss chard. It’s where we get our beet and chard seeds. When the sugar beet industry decided to switch to all GMO sugar beets, there were some organic growers in the Valley who became concerned that the sugar beet pollen blowing into their organic beet and chard fields would now be GMO pollen as opposed to conventional pollen. If their organic crops were to become contaminated by this GMO pollen, they would lose their organic status. Organic seed cannot have genetically modified material in it.
How did the lawsuit originate?
One of our growers in Oregon discovered a GMO sugar beet field a mile from his chard field. He contacted the Organic Seed Alliance and they realized it was a big issue and contacted the Center for Food Safety. The Center then had a lawsuit in process over GMO alfalfa, and they realized that the beet issue was almost identical. The alfalfa lawsuit demanded that APHIS [a regulatory arm of the USDA] engage in a more rigorous environmental impact study before approving GMO alfalfa. The court agreed, and now the release of GMO alfalfa has been put on hold. We hope the same thing will happen in the sugar beet case.
Why did High Mowing become a plaintiff in the lawsuit?
We have an economic interest in the issue. We sell table beets and chard, and the guy in Oregon is our grower, so if we had to routinely test all of his beet and chard seeds for GMO contamination, that could be a few thousand bucks of testing every year. And if we found contamination before selling something, we’d lose money. We sell tens of thousands of dollars of beet and chard seed each year, nationwide.
The lawsuit asks for a rigorous environmental analysis. Can you explain one of the environmental risks of GMO sugar beets?
GE technology has forced growers to use Monsanto’s Roundup and other herbicides in great amounts because that’s the chemical that is designed to be used on many of these GMO crops. We need to better understand the effects of Roundup, now that sales of it have increased so dramatically. For one thing, there’s been a development of “superweeds.” There are now 11 different species of plants that are resistant to Roundup because it’s being sprayed with such intensity. The plants have developed a tolerance for it.
How does High Mowing guard against GMO contamination in its seeds?
Part of our contract with growers requires them to alert us if there are any GMO crops planted within five miles of their farm. In the case of this grower in Oregon, when we learned about the GMO sugar beets nearby, he had his chard seed tested and thankfully it didn’t have any GMO contamination in it. But as I mentioned before, if we had to test for contamination repeatedly, it would be a real burden on our company.
Do you think most consumers of organic produce are aware of how easy it is for organic crops to become contaminated by GMOs?
I think people assume there are no GMOs in organics, which I think is mostly correct, but I don’t think they know all of the issues regarding pollination and isolation distances and so forth. That said, nothing has made people more aware of seeds and seed issues than GMOs. They have brought pollination to the forefront.
Right now, the GMO crops being planted most extensively in Vermont are corn and soy. Don’t farmers have a right to plant GMO seeds in their fields?
It’s not so much of a choice for many of them. One of the aspects of GMOs that’s been so negative has been that they’ve encouraged huge consolidation in the seed industry. For example, it’s really hard to find non-GMO corn if you’re a conventional grower in Vermont. If you look through the seed catalog given to you by the seed dealer you’ve been buying from all these years, most of the seeds are GMO now. It’s being driven down farmers’ throats. And the seeds cost more, and in the end you’re just renting them from the corporation that makes them.
As an organic grower, how do you think you’re perceived by folks who support GMOs?
Sometimes people think that organic growers want to go back to the time of horse-and-buggies. So it’s important to me that folks know I’m not a Luddite. I believe in agricultural progress—but true progress, which means that our solutions need to address and help improve soil health, economic viability for farmers, human health, nutrition. Being able to spray huge amounts of herbicide on a crop because the crop is resistant to it is unwise. It’s not necessarily progress.
Do you think organic and conventional farmers in Vermont can work together on this issue?
You know, 99 percent of our interests are shared. We need to work together. And we should preserve everyone’s right to farm the way they want to, but not when it takes away someone else’s right to farm the way they want to. That said, I’m not too concerned about these distinctions between farmers. We’ve got a great community of farmers here in Vermont who are all working hard to grow food for our communities.