Last Man Standing

Despite repeated contamination from genetically modified crops on his farm, Spanish farmer Felix Ballarín refuses to abandon his cultivation of organic corn in Sariñena, Aragon. With 25 years experience behind him, the discovery that neighboring fields planted with GM corn had contaminated his sought-after product dealt a heavy blow to his life’s work and future earnings. Even a minimal trace of GM strains means he is unable to sell his harvest as an organic product.

But unlike the majority of organic corn farmers in Spain, Félix Ballarín hasn’t given up the fight. As production of organic corn drops, organic farmers are finding it increasingly difficult to source quality feed for their animals, with many resorting to importing the coveted organic product from abroad. Blanca Ruibal, coordinator of the agricultural association Amigos de la Tierra, says: “mostly these imports come from France, as well as Italy. Here in Spain, organic corn farming is in danger of disappearing altogether.”

“Over the past five years, 90 percent of farmers who produced organic corn in Aragon have ceased their cultivation due to contamination by genetically modified corn, with the number of cases increasing dramatically over the last three years,” confirmed José Manuel Benítez, organic agriculture coordinator at COAG (Coordinator of Growers and Livestock farmers Organizations). According to Benítez, in the years prior to 2010 “the total area devoted to cultivating organic corn decreased dramatically. In Aragon alone, it reduced by 70% over five years.”

The total area planted with organic corn in Aragon rose slightly between 2010 and 2011 – from 649 hectares up to 695 – but there is no data on how much of the yield remains uncontaminated. With the high risk of contamination, those organic famers who are continuing to cultivate corn are resorting to changing their planting dates to reduce their vulnerability. But by choosing to plant outside the optimal period they decrease the likelihood of a high yield.

Contaminated organic corn crops are also a big problem for breeders. “Here in Andalucia organic animal farmers have never had access to high-quality pastures rich in protein, so we are forced to buy organic corn or soy. Now we have to import corn or use an alternative less nutritious fodder, such as beans or chickpeas, “says Benítez. “We commit to buying organic corn in bulk even before the fields have been harvested, but it is impossible to exclude the possibility that the harvest will test positive for GM traceability.”

And the risk is very high. According to Amigos de la Tierra, currently “90% of Europe’s GM crops are concentrated in Spain, while countries like France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Greece, Bulgaria, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Ireland, Hungary and Austria have banned such cultivations, citing a number of important unresolved questions of the effects of transgenic crops on health and the natural environment.”

Unfortunately the problem is not limited to corn. “In Spain, corn is the only commercial GM crop, but others have been approved for experimental cultivation, provided they are not sold,” says Ruibal. “The Ministry of Agriculture makes the names of the companies which have applied to plant these experimental crops publically available, but they do not specify the exact location of the land concerned.”

The situation in Spain is particularly severe, but the same story can be found the world over: genetically modified crops are invading fields close by (and some that are not so close by), contaminating both the organic and conventional (non organic, non GM) food industries. Until such time that we are 100 percent certain the coexistence among GM and conventional/organic agriculture is possible, we must avoid it at all costs.

“I will continue to plant organic corn just to prove that it is impossible to produce these crops reliably when the surrounding fields are literally flooded with GM corn,” says Ballarín. “I want to show that the harmonious coexistence of GM and organic plants cannot be guaranteed – on the contrary it is impossible.” Today Ballarín is the last remaining organic farmer in the Sariñena area.

The – Belén Tobalina

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