The Farmer’s Brunch and the issues of genetic engineering

Slow Food Martha’s Vineyard event discusses GMOs over waffles.

Martin Dagoberto, co-founder of MA Right to Know, spoke about the current state of GMO labeling laws. – Photo by Joyce Wagner

“I’ve been a gardener on this Island for over 40 years,” says Fran Finnegan, a retired teacher. “And this manipulation of our food supply is frightening,” says Ms. Finnegan while attending the Farmer’s Brunch last Sunday. Sponsored by Slow Food Martha’s Vineyard, the event featured GMO (genetically modified organism) -free food, informational exhibits and four guest speakers on the subject, “Negotiating the Complexities of GMOs — Sourcing Seeds, Feeds, and Foods.”

The topic is a burning one for most of the country, and the Island, with a large population of activists on any number of subjects, is no exception. Judging by their reactions to the information provided at Sunday’s brunch, the participants were firmly in the corner against GMOs. Nonetheless, the gathering was warm, friendly, and appreciative. The food, including two kinds of waffles, greens with sweet potatoes, frittata, and a whipped caramel sauce, was luscious, organic, and plentiful. As this was a “zero waste event,” guests were encouraged to bring nondisposable or recyclable mugs, plates, utensils, and napkins. Morning brews were provided by Chilmark Coffee.

Slow Food Martha’s Vineyard is a chapter of Slow Food USA, part of an international Slow Food network spanning more than 150 countries. It was founded by a group of concerned Islanders after Rick Karney, director of Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group, discovered the global organization while speaking at a food producers’ conference in Italy. “I had never even heard of slow food before,” Rick told The Times in a phone interview. “ I went to this conference and was completely overwhelmed by it. It was an epiphany of sorts.” He joined the Slow Food USA chapter in Boston, and found that a number of people from the Island were also members. In 2005, they combined efforts and created a Vineyard chapter.

They started with potluck dinners in private homes. “Sometimes we had a theme night,” Rick recalls, “but often it was just about eating local.” They eventually opened it to a larger group through educational programs, potlucks, and other events.

On Sunday, in the large hall that is Chilmark Community Center, people gathered at tables peppered with cards and table tents with GMO facts and statistics. Conversations concerned that subject matter, gushes about the quality of the brunch, and food in general. One West Tisbury couple, recently washed ashore from Washington, D.C., discussed European countries and the differences in the food culture. A young woman circulated around the tables, dropping off seed packets.

Around 10:30, the crowd settled into a hush. Jan Buhrman of Kitchen Porch Catering took the podium, thanked the donors and members who coordinated the event, and introduced the first speaker, Carol Koury of Sow True Seed Co.

Ms. Koury spoke eloquently, providing definitions of natural and unnatural seeds, the science and challenges behind genetic engineering, and the control of GMOs and seed patents by large food and pharmaceutical corporations. “There are eight large companies that control three-quarters of the seeds sold in the United States,” she avers. She announces the names of those companies while audience members nod with recognition. “Notice that none of those are seed companies,” she points out.

“Farmers have to repurchase those seeds every year,” she adds. “It is illegal for them to save any seeds. They get sued for unintentionally having their crops contaminated.”

Eric Glasgow of the Grey Barn (a certified organic farm that uses non-GMO feeds for its animals) took the podium next. He spoke briefly about what makes a farm organic and how his farm operates under those tenets, concluding with, “The easiest way to avoid GMOs is to eat organic.”

That said, his views on GMOs seem more moderate than most. “Speaking for myself,” he says, “I don’t oppose GMOs on principle, but more as a function of what it represents. I don’t want to reflexively dismiss the science,” he says. “There’s something [called] ‘Golden Rice’ that’s a genetically modified crop, but it was done to basically address the vitamin A deficiencies in the Third World. It was done not by major chemical companies, but by an academic consortium.”

He admits, however, “The danger of GMO is that it represents and supports a system of industrial big agriculture that can be really damaging. It uses a nonsustainable system. GMO is part of that system.”

“It’s a complicated issue,” he says. “There needs to be rules. [Labeling] allows the market forces to act. If people don’t want to buy it, they can act with their pocketbooks.”

Ms. Buhrman talked about organic eggs, the rules that govern the appellation, and cited the corporations that violate those rules. She sourced a Wisconsin-based farm-policy research group, the Cornucopia Institute. “Last month they took 14 of these industries to task,” she said. “They filed a formal legal complaint against all 14. These are operations that are producing milk, meat, and eggs, and they’re all being marketed, allegedly illegally, as organic.”

She continued with a description of the inadequate legal requirements for labeling a product “organic.” “In terms of humane treatment, [chickens] are supposed to be outdoors, they are supposed to be cage-free.” According to Ms. Buhrman, one type of certification does not require that the animals have adequate access to the outdoors, and there is little enforcement of the existing rules. In her words, “These facilities are not farms, they are concrete buildings that can hold up to 1 million chickens. Chickens are given [outside] access through a small door or sometimes on a small porch that can hold less than 1 percent of the animals. This is called ‘free-range.’ This is called ‘cage-free.’”

Martin Dagoberto, co-founder of MA Right to Know, with a degree in biotechnology and genetics, spoke quickly and succinctly about the current state of GMO labeling laws in effect and the progress of proposed laws. He spoke of the efforts of large corporations to distribute false and misleading information regarding GMOs, and the dangers of failure of the states to pass laws regarding transparency. “Unless we have a number of states to set the standard for GMO labeling,” he says, “the basic human right of food choice will be rendered obsolete.”

After a brief question-and-answer session, the brunch ended on a positive note with a raffle of organic foods and food-related products donated by local farms, markets, and individuals.

Afterward, at the door, Fran Finnegan, the retired schoolteacher, professed to having learned a few things during the information-packed morning. “There’s a lot more action from grassroots organizations pushing legislation,” she said. “I was happy to hear that legislative action is being taken.”