GMO-Free creates economic opportunity | guest column

By Michele Heller

Salmon, transportation, recreation, tourism, commerce … Puget Sound waters have provided food in the belly and cash in the pockets of islanders for generations.

Now these waters may offer another economic benefit – as a unique, world-class buffer to protect seeds and crops from genetically modified organisms.

The San Juan Islands economy could become the beneficiary – serving a market looking for a premium product – as a region able to provide GMO-free seed, crops and food.

If passed, San Juan County Initiative 2012-4 will make it unlawful for any person or entity to knowingly propagate, cultivate, raise or grow genetically modified organisms in San Juan County.

While this will not result in extra personnel or cost to the county or its residents to regulate or enforce, it does provide protection to farmers who seek to grow seed free from GMO contamination.

Many consumers are willing to pay extra for certified organic because it provided the only assurance that a product is GMO free. Now the “Non-GMO Project Verified” label is also gaining momentum.

As consumers and governments increasingly resist GMO crops, a market niche is opening.

Consumer demand for non-GMO produce, eggs, dairy and meat free from GMO feed is increasing as data regarding potential health risks and environmental damage come to light.

“Non-GMO Project Verified” has become the fastest growing food eco-label in North America, as sales of certified products hit $1 billion in 2011, according to findings unveiled at Organic Monitor’s Sustainable Foods Summit in San Francisco last month (Feb 2012).” For more info, visit

“Consumer demand for organically produced goods has shown double-digit growth for well over a decade, providing market incentives for U.S. farmers across a broad range of products. Organic products are now available in nearly three of four conventional grocery stores, and enjoy substantial price premiums over conventional products. (Source: USDA)

Because of isolation from the mainland, the islands are a “closed” agricultural landscape, and can take advantage of this unique position to produce non-GMO food for higher sale prices.

Farmers who produce GMO food are dependent on agribusiness for seed and feed, which is patented, owned and price controlled by a small monopoly of corporate suppliers. Non-GMO seed and feed is available to anyone, from suppliers subject to competition.

M.R. Buffum, a fourth generation Lopez Island farmer, supports GMO Free San Juans Initiative 2012-4. He now grows 55 acres of certified organic barley for mainland organic dairy farms.

“It makes economic sense,” he explains,” It commands a higher price and makes it possible for me to have my fields in grain production again. It is good for the islands to save farmland, but without a way to make money with the acreage, many of the farms will give way to development. This helps keep agriculture in the islands.”


Michele Heller is co-founder of L.I.F.E. Farm and Garden Program at the Lopez School and Lopez Locavores, whose mission is promoting sustainable agriculture and food security.