California dairies ahead to dump GM? (17/12/2004)

"Whatever becomes of a second anti-GMO ballot measure, a voluntary ban on GMO crops supported by the dairy industry and local consumers and activists would be a win-win for the North Coast."

Dairies ahead to dump GM?

IT WAS JUST AFTER DAWN WHEN THE DAIRYMAN milked the last cow. Sweaty and tired from three hours of heavy labor, he led his 160 Holsteins back out to pasture, where they'd graze until the afternoon milking.

He said he didn't mind the hard work and the long, strange hours. "I get the satisfaction of knowing that I'm working hard and supporting a family in agriculture," he said. What wore him out was the financial stress. The prices he received were low, while his costs kept rising. He worried about the future of the dairy, which had been in his wife's family for 80 years.

That morning occurred about five years ago, and this dairy farm, like a handful of others on the North Coast, went under in 2002 during a long slump in raw milk prices.

The survivors have lately enjoyed higher prices, but prices are expected to decline next year, too soon to relieve the dairies' chronic economic distress. Faced with mounting debt and declining profits, dairy operators look for ways to control or reduce their costs. And, as Journal readers know, some dairies have begun planting genetically engineered Roundup Ready corn to save money on the herbicides and diesel fuel they'd otherwise use in spraying and tilling their fields to control weeds. The biotech corn variety also produces higher yields per acre [never seen any evidence for this]

For an individual dairy owner, planting this crop, already in widespread use around the world, can make a lot of sense, as much sense as it makes for a PC user to upgrade to Windows XP. But in planting genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on local dairy ranches, these farmers may be inadvertently downloading an economic virus that could damage the local industry's market position as a supplier of natural products. The market risks are so serious that members of one local dairy association say they will probably seek a ban on GMO planting by members.

While the typical California dairy is a large, polluting industrial facility that confines cows 24/7, the North Coast's 100 dairies keep their cows grazing on pastures most of the time, like herbivores were meant to do. Their fields are also friendly to birds and wildlife. Additionally, all North Coast dairies have sworn off the controversial growth hormone rBST.

These characteristics have become selling points for Humboldt Creamery, Loleta Cheese Co. and Rumiano Cheese Co., the three dairy processors that buy raw milk from dairies in Humboldt and Del Norte counties.

By differentiating many of their products as "natural," "pasture-based" and "rBST-free," the processors have been able to gain loyal consumers in California, Oregon and elsewhere. These attributes have also helped them obtain contracts to supply other manufacturers.

One manufacturer supplied by Humboldt Creamery, San Francisco-based Double Rainbow, highlights North
Coast dairies on its cartons: "Their natural environment enables us to provide you with the finest ice cream possible."

Consumers drawn to such claims are a minority of buyers, but they make up a large portion of the people who buy products made with North Coast dairy milk, local industry sources say.

And while opinion polls show that most Americans support genetic engineering in agriculture, these
natural-food consumers tend to be viscerally opposed to GMOs.

After the news broke about Roundup Ready corn growing on local dairies, a prominent organic farming educator declared in a letter to the Times-Standard that she would no longer buy Humboldt Creamery milk.

Other local consumers will probably follow suit, and word could spread quickly via the Internet, potentially affecting the everyday buying decisions of thousands of consumers and the annual purchase contracts of several manufacturers like Double Rainbow.

People in the dairy community have told me that they see both sides of the issue. On one hand, they respect the rights of other farmers to use whatever growing methods they deem most effective.

But they also think that the GMO issue has real potential to damage their collective market position.

I've also learned that the Humboldt Creamery cooperative -- which incorporates about two-thirds of localdairies -- will probably consider whether to ban GMO planting by its members because of the potential impacts on its market. The dairies that supply Rumiano and Loleta, although not a cooperative, may consider a ban as well.

Such a policy would follow the successful precedent set when the dairies and processors became rBST-free in the 1990s. Given the risks involved, enacting a collective ban on planting GMOs may be the best course for the industry to take.

For the farmers who have planted biotech corn, however, abandoning a technology they've found useful and cost-effective would certainly be tough to swallow.

Perhaps anti-GMO activists could make the medicine go down more easily by reaching out to these and
other dairy operators, acknowledging the economic pressures that have led farmers to plant biotech corn, and offering something in the way of compensation for returning to conventional seeds.

They could promise to organize a campaign urging local consumers to choose North Coast dairy products over competing brands. They could also use their activist networks and media contacts to generate statewideand national news coverage of a voluntarily adopted policy against GMO planting in the North Coast milkproducing areas. That would boost the profile of the North Coast dairy industry in wider markets.

Such a collaborative strategy could achieve results much sooner than another anti-GMO ballot measure,
which is many months, if not a year or more, away.

Furthermore, it's not clear that a county measure to ban GMOs would survive a lawsuit by farmers intent on resisting such a prohibition.

In the three California counties that have passed GMO bans, Mendocino, Marin and Trinity, as well as the city of Arcata, there were no GMO crops when the measures were passed.

In Humboldt County there are several hundred acres planted by seven or eight dairy operators and at least one commercial forage supplier. If an anti-GMO measure passes here, these farmers may be able to make a legal case that the county has no right to circumvent the federal regulations that have allowed GMOs in agriculture.

If, on the other hand, the dairies' cooperative and commercial partners adopted a voluntary ban, they would probably have to go along grudgingly.

Whatever becomes of a second anti-GMO ballot measure, a voluntary ban on GMO crops supported by the dairy industry and local consumers and activists would be a win-win for the North Coast.

In addition to being a former Journal staff writer, Jim Hight has written for Capital Press, a weekly farming trade publication, and authored special reports on local agriculture for farm associations and public-interest groups.


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