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Great Barrington Selectboard considers resolution to protect organic farms from GMOs and pesticides

“There are a lot of people trying to do organic farming around here. This [resolution] is about protecting our local organic farmers. If you get GMO seed into your field, you’re done.” -- Selectboard member Bill Cooke, who introduced a draft resolution intended to protect the integrity of organic farms and their produce.
Berkshire Co-op board president Dan Seitz is also on the National Organic Standards board. Photo: Heather Bellow
Berkshire Co-op board president Dan Seitz is also on the National Organic Standards board. Photo: Heather Bellow

Great Barrington — While the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) industry still claims GMOs are not harmful to human health, we do know that GMO crops can pollinate other plants, and so efforts to curb GMO use are mounting — just in case.

In a town that prides itself – and sells itself – as ground zero for the local food and sustainable agriculture movement, Selectboard member Bill Cooke thought it might be wise for the town to simply take a stand on something that could taint what is a growing and valuable asset to the local economy.

Cooke wrote a draft of the “Resolution Regarding Protection of Sustainable and Organic Agriculture” with Berkshire Co-op Market’s board president Dan Seitz, who said, on this issue, it is important to “operate with the precautionary principle.” The resolution can be read at the end of this article.

Such a resolution can’t compel farmers to do anything but will simply raise awareness and be a goal to strive for, Cooke said. (The text of the resolution is reproduced below.)

“If a farmer will go out of business if he can’t [stop GMO use], then he shouldn’t do it, ” he added.

The resolution, which would have to be voted on by the Selectboard before it can head to Annual Town Meeting in May, calls sustainable and organic agriculture “a vital and growing industry” here and in “surrounding communities, as well as other parts of Massachusetts.”

Products labeled GMO-free and vetted by the Non-GMO Project fill many shelves at the Berkshire Co-op Market. Photo: Heather Bellow
Products labeled GMO-free and vetted by the Non-GMO Project fill many shelves at the Berkshire Co-op Market. Photo: Heather Bellow

Aside from the health and environmental benefits of organic farming, the resolution says, farming GMO crops involves the use of “large quantities of toxic pesticides and herbicides.”

The resolution further cites glyphosate, the ingredient in pesticides like Monsanto Corporation’s popular Roundup, “is known to cause harm to human beings.”

While the EPA says glyphosate is likely not a carcinogen, an EPA advisory panel of scientists convening on the matter last December were split on this.

This is where the wheat can’t be separated from the chaff, according to some; if indeed GMO crops do require more herbicides and pesticides, those crops are then inextricably linked to chemicals whose effects are still highly questionable. While some evidence points to lowered herbicide use in GMO crops, some data points to an increase, at least in part because of the evolution of glyphosate-resistant weeds.

And on the topic of whether such crops increase pesticide use, well, that’s another long descent into the GMO rabbit hole where a plant created to be insect-resistant, for instance, soon becomes vulnerable to insects that developed resistance to a pesticide.

Equinox Farm owner Ted Dobson weighs his greens. Photo: Heather Bellow
Equinox Farm owner Ted Dobson weighs his greens. Photo: Heather Bellow

But Cooke says this is a place-specific issue on a number of levels, namely protecting an industry that is vulnerable to GMO contamination – an industry that draws people to the Berkshires and is increasingly becoming more important to the economy.

“There are a lot of people trying to do organic farming around here,” he said. “This [resolution] is about protecting our local organic farmers. If you get GMO seed into your field, you’re done.”

Ted Dobson, who practices organic farming at his Equinox Farm in nearby Sheffield, says GMO crops and glyphosate use “go hand in hand” and that glyphosates “don’t lay around inert” but get into “the cellular structure of the plant.”

“Look at long history of hybridization,” Dobson added. “We’ve been manipulating crops since we’ve been cultivators. But GMOs are a more advanced version of tampering. They’re Frankensteinian.”

And it isn’t only GMOs that can spread, doing what plants do.

“Nothing works in a vacuum,” Dobson said. “Glyphosate is everywhere now; in water, plants, the guts of cows, in our milk, in us — thank you, Monsanto.”

Riverhill Farms owner George Beebe says has 600 acres of GMO hay and corn crops in Great Barrington. Photo: Heather Bellow
Riverhill Farms owner George Beebe says he has 600 acres of GMO hay and corn crops in Great Barrington. Photo: Heather Bellow

Monsanto, he pointed out, used to simply be in the pesticide and herbicide business. Then it got into the seed business. Dobson said the two products complement each other and, with the bulk of commodity corn in the U.S. being GMO, it’s hard to avoid the effects, some of which really do make people sick according to journalist and author Caitlin Shetterly. In Shetterly’s book “Modified,” she researched GMOs and traced her and her child’s illnesses back to GMO corn.

“When you try to take on American food and big agriculture, the deck is stacked,” Dobson said.

Riverhill Farms owner George Beebe says this is all “left-wing, socialist,” media-manufactured nonsense. Beebe owns 600 acres of corn and hay fields around Great Barrington. He says he has GMO crops that he’s farmed for the last 15 to 20 years since GMOs were introduced.

Beebe, who has been farming for 40 years, says GMO crops have helped his farm stay in business and “make money.”

“I’m still surviving,” he said, attributing that in large part to GMO technology. “I have a 25 percent increase [in yields], much less pesticide use, less environmental damage.”

He said neither Roundup nor GMOs were harmful to people or the environment.

“You don’t have to use insecticides because the GMO gene makes the plant produce natural toxins that repel the insects.”

A close-up of corn from Riverhill Farms. Photo: David Scribner
A close-up of corn from Riverhill Farms. Photo: David Scribner

Yet it can’t be denied that, despite science that can be used both ways and research waters that Seitz says are muddied by big industry, there is a massive organic food and farming movement. In Great Barrington, where you can’t go far without finding a local, grass-fed burger or Dobson’s greens, the center of all this is the Berkshire Co-op Market. The Co-op is so popular that it is bursting at the seams and, as a result, is about to undergo a massive expansion at its downtown location.

Part of the Co-op’s mission is to support local and organic farmers and give people information about what’s in their food, Seitz said. The Co-op does everything it can to ensure its products are GMO-free, but Seitz said it is hard to catch everything. “We do our best,” he added, noting that it isn’t easy since “GMOs are so pervasive in the U.S. food environment.”

He further said that organic standards automatically make it easier since they prohibit GMOs. There is also the Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit that vets foods. Seitz said there is another problem with GMOs: “monocropping and loss of genetic diversity, which can imperil food safety – within the GMO industry, they are losing diversity at a great rate.”

The Co-op tries to carry as much local and organic produce as it can. Photo: Heather Bellow
The Co-op tries to carry as much local and organic produce as it can. Photo: Heather Bellow

“In Europe, they understand all this,” Seitz added, noting that precautionary principle again. “Once you plant it and start cultivating it, you can’t pull it back. In this country we’ve flipped this on its head. And when you have billions of dollars at stake, it will be almost impossible to have an objective scientific conversation on the subject.”

The resolution isn’t just directed at farmers, but residents and the municipality, too. Cooke said the town’s Department of Public Works doesn’t use pesticides and he hopes residents will stop using Roundup “to get rid of sidewalk weeds; vinegar works really well.”

While this resolution may not be binding, Dobson says it’s still a worthwhile statement.

“It’s a powerful symbolic act that we begin to take a stand,” he said. “You’ve got to start somewhere, and thank god Great Barrington is piping up about it. We have thousands of acres of GMO crops throughout the Berkshires. It’s kind of an irony that this farm-to-table county is mostly GMO crops.”

Selectboard member Bill Cooke, author of the GMO resolution. Photo: Heather Bellow
Selectboard member Bill Cooke, author of the GMO resolution. Photo: Heather Bellow

ARTICLE XXX: Resolution regarding Protection of Sustainable and Organic Agriculture in the Town of Great Barrington

To see if the Town of Great Barrington will vote to approve the following resolution:

WHEREAS, sustainable and organic agriculture is a vital and growing industry in Great Barrington and surrounding Berkshire communities, as well as other parts of Massachusetts;

Whereas, sustainable and organic agriculture protects the environment, including insect, plant, animal and human health and wellbeing, as well as soil fertility and clean water;

Whereas, organic farmers are prohibited from using genetically engineered seeds and substances, and organic crops that are contaminated by GMOs lose substantial value;

Whereas, genetically engineered organisms have the potential to contaminate other organisms, both cultivated and wild, through normal reproductive processes—and, in the case of crops and other plants, such contamination can occur at a great distance through cross-pollination;

Whereas, GMO contamination becomes virtually certain once the introduction of genetically engi- neered organisms is widespread, and once it occurs is irreversible;

Whereas, there is no way of knowing what the long term, harmful impact of GMOs will be on the natural environment and human health;

Whereas, the cultivation of GMO crops requires large quantities of toxic pesticides and herbicides that contaminate soil and water, and clean water and unpolluted soil are a necessary component of a healthy ecosystem, food system and human, animal and insect health; and

Whereas glyphosate, which is widely used in conjunction with GMO production, is particularly widespread and is known to cause harm to human beings.

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED by the Town Meeting of the Town of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, that the Town of Great Barrington is hereby declared an Organic and Sustainable Farming Friendly Community, and that the Town encourages adoption of policies and practices among farmers and residents that protect and support bene cial insect, animal and human health by eliminating the cultivation of genetically modi ed crops and the sale and use of pesticides and herbicides that are used in conjunction with such crops, most notably glyphosate, which is sold under various trade names including “Round-Up,” “Rodeo,” and “Accord.”

The Town Clerk is requested to send copies of this Resolution to Governor Charlie Baker, Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources Commissioner John Lebeaux , State Senator Adam Hines and State Representative William Smitty Pignatelli. or to take any other
action relative thereto.

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