A farmer’s fight to keep it pure

Avondale man joins movement to prevent genetic modifications

Avondale-area farmer Dan Hobbs, who grows organic garlic, beans and squash on about 30 irrigated acres, is among a score of organic farmers fighting patent-infringement lawsuits from Monsanto, the agricultural company that specializes in offering seeds for high-yield, genetically modified crops. Enlarge photo

John Jaques/Pueblo Chieftain

Avondale-area farmer Dan Hobbs, who grows organic garlic, beans and squash on about 30 irrigated acres, is among a score of organic farmers fighting patent-infringement lawsuits from Monsanto, the agricultural company that specializes in offering seeds for high-yield, genetically modified crops.

PUEBLO (AP)

Like many farmers, Dan Hobbs spends his spring days wondering when it will rain or if the wind is ever going to stop blowing, raking weeds out of ditches newly filled with irrigation water and nurturing seeds in various stages of growth toward their eventual destiny as fully grown garlic, bean or vegetable plants.

Those are the rituals of the season.

Last winter, however, he had a longer-range goal in mind.

In January, the organic-farm advocate traveled to New York to lend his support – and testimony, if needed – to a federal court case brought by the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association against Monsanto. Hobbs was not called on to testify during the oral arguments, but joined about 200 others from food-safety groups and Occupy Wall Street in a rally near the courthouse after the courtroom action wrapped up.

The farmers lost their challenge to Monsanto’s patents on genetically engineered seed on Feb. 24. Monsanto admitted to filing 144 lawsuits between 1997 and 2010 and settled another 700 cases out of court for undisclosed amounts with gag orders on the farmers, which the association says amounts to harassment of farmers.

“Our goal is to protect farmers from patent-infringement charges by Monsanto when their organic crops are contaminated by Monsanto’s genetically altered seed,” Hobbs said.

Last week, a federal appeals court agreed to hear an appeal of the New York decision.

Hobbs has a vested interest in trying to limit the encroachment of genetic engineering into crops.

While farmers have manipulated the genetic material of plants on a trial-and-error basis for about 10,000 years, the gene splicing by Monsanto and other companies in the last 20 years has created an uncertain situation. Some of the benefits and harm have been overstated, and there are urban legends – rural legends? – about the impacts. For Hobbs, there isn’t enough scientific proof to determine that genetic manipulation is completely safe.

“We believe the precautionary principle should be followed,” Hobbs said. “The first genetic crops appeared in the 1990s, and they pushed them without any review. Now, 94 percent of soy is genetically modified, and that wipes out the genetic diversity.”

For Hobbs, 43, who has farmed on 30 acres near Avondale since 2000, there is no direct threat to the types of food he grows, both as cash crops and for seed: garlic, squash, beans and vegetables. In all, he and partner Jamie Dunston raise seed for eight varieties of garlic and a couple dozen other vegetables.

Hobbs relocated to Pueblo after learning about organic farming and training others in northern New Mexico in the late 1990s. He was lured here by the climate – cool nights, hot days during growing season – and plentiful water on the Bessemer Ditch.

So far, genetic modification has focused on field crops such as soybeans, corn, canola, rice and cotton, and left his corner of the world alone. But other crops could be targeted in the future, and he wants to prevent further encroachment.

“It’s anybody’s guess where all this is going,” Hobbs said.

In his opinion, it was not farmers who asked for genetic modification of crops, but the majority would make a choice to use seed that is more resistant to disease or produces a higher yield as a business decision.

“The organic seed market is relatively undeveloped,” Hobbs said. “Think of where we would be if the same resources had gone into traditional plant breeding.”

Monsanto’s protection of its patent puts the burden of proof on the small farmer, Hobbs said.

Pollen does not respect property lines. For instance, Hobbs has to be careful to grow varieties of Pueblo chiles that will not cross-pollinate – either with crops on his own or on neighbors’ fields.

If genetically modified pollen blows into a field, is it the farmer’s responsibility to determine if some of Monsanto’s genes contaminated his crop? The testing is expensive, so Hobbs sees the process weighted toward the corporation.

For the organic farmer, there is an additional burden to ensure the purity of their crops.

“For organic farmers, the issue is, ‘How do you find out if you’re contaminated?’ Is it don’t ask, don’t tell?” Hobbs said. “We’ve taken a zero-tolerance approach.”

So far, specialty crops that Dan Hobbs grows, such as this purple Guatemalan fava bean, have not been targeted for genetic modification. But Hobbs wants to prevent further encroachment. Enlarge photo

John Jaques/Pueblo Chieftain

So far, specialty crops that Dan Hobbs grows, such as this purple Guatemalan fava bean, have not been targeted for genetic modification. But Hobbs wants to prevent further encroachment.

Jamie Dunston tends her seedlings in the greenhouse at a farm near Avondale. Dunston and partner Dan Hobbs raise seed for eight varieties of garlic and a couple dozen other vegetables. Enlarge photo

John Jaques/Pueblo Chieftain

Jamie Dunston tends her seedlings in the greenhouse at a farm near Avondale. Dunston and partner Dan Hobbs raise seed for eight varieties of garlic and a couple dozen other vegetables.