USDA Biotech Committee Report: The good, the bad and the ugly 

By Harriet Behar

close-up soy rowsIn November 2012, the USDA Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture (also called AC 21), delivered its report, titled “Enhancing Coexistence,” to USDA Secretary Vilsack. This committee of 23 members representing universities, commodity groups, trade associations, businesses, government and farmers met five times. I’d consider approximately six of the members to be unsupportive of biotech seeds or crops, the rest are very pro-genetically engineered (GE) crops.

The task of this committee was to address the following issues. A mandate decreed that the first two be addressed before the third:

  1. What system, if any, would work best to compensate farmers whose crop values are reduced by the “unintended presence” of GE materials?

  2. How would that system determine which claims would be eligible for compensation?

  3. What other actions could facilitate coexistence among different agricultural systems in the United States? (The committee defines coexistence as: the concurrent cultivation of conventional, organic, IP and genetically engineered (GE) crops consistent with underlying consumer preferences and farmer choices.)

I’d like to bring some of the elements of the report to your attention.


The Good: Recognition that GE has some problems

The biotech industry is very strong and politically influential in the U.S. Up until now unwanted GE drift on crops and fields from neighboring GE crops has not been recognized as needing regulatory attention. I give Secretary Vilsack credit for starting this discussion, with the formation of the AC21 committee, and also for his attempt to limit the deregulation of GE Roundup-Ready alfalfa. Although the many biotech lawyers successfully challenged and won on GE alfalfa, it is a small consolation that limitation on a GE crop was at least considered.

The AC21 report wisely addresses the need to protect seed quality, and unadulterated seed germplasm free of GE contamination. The need for an ample supply of “regionally adapted, high quality” seeds to meet all farmers, needs is necessary for “the associated agricultural sectors to flourish.” This reference includes organic seed production. The entire committee agreed that useful tools include isolation areas for the protection of specific types of seeds to prevent genetic drift.


The Bad: Limited view of what GE damage looks like

The Secretary’s specific mandate to the AC-21 Committee required a compensation mechanism to address farmer economic losses caused by GE crop production. The mandate did not take into account the many difficulties that the introduction of GE crops have had on those who do not use this technology. For example, non-GE farmers who feed their crops to their own livestock may not have a quantifiable economic loss, but have been damaged just the same by genetic drift. Costs and challenges of planning and land-use limitations to avoid contamination of non-GE farms is not addressed. Only monetary losses experienced at the sale of the product are considered. Many GE supporters on the committee questioned whether or not financial damages are really occurring, since organic farmers do not lose organic certification if their crops test positive for GE.


The Ugly: Victim pays

The compensation mechanism, as proposed, asks the USDA to set up a crop insurance program that non-GE farmers can buy into against losses. Non-GE farmers can lessen their insurance premium by working out agreements with their neighbors to plant GE crops later or earlier or in a different location.

This plan could have a chilling effect on the growth of organic agriculture. Organic farmers want to farm the way they choose. They do not want to negotiate management decisions with a community that may view their practices as crazy, or judgmental of non-organic practices. The committee felt that this type of communication between GE farmers and non-GE farmers would build community and lessen problems. However, in my opinion it could lead to more, not less, friction. First, it will put a significant burden on non-GE farmers to actually find their GE neighbors (much farmland is now rented out on an annual basis). Additionally, a non-GE farmer will need to ask a GE farmer to change farming practices in order to accommodate a neighbor. Another level of challenge occurs if the plan is not adhered to by the GE farmer. We all know that rain, broken equipment, running out of seed, and many other reasons can affect when and what a farmer can plant. What happens to the plan then? If the plan to avoid GE contamination is not followed by the GE farmer, does the insurance premium for the organic farmer rise?


The Very Ugly: More to GE than just economic impact

Why are the patent-holders of the technology not being held accountable for the unwanted genetic drift their GE crops are causing? Why is there a lack of concern for the purity of our crop seed germplasm as well as wild plants affected by windblown GE pollen? The belief that GE crops actually mean less chemical herbicide and pesticide use has been shown to be completely false. In actuality, the biotech industry wants to introduce more problematic herbicides for use on resistant crops. Imagine all of the acreage currently sprayed with Roundup being sprayed with 2-4-D instead? Why are the long-term negative environmental and human health impacts of these GE crops not studied before they are released into our environment?


Meaningful GE review and control

Europe and other areas of the world have approached GE crops with extreme caution. It is time that real dialogue and GE control begins in the U.S. to address all aspects of GE crops, from ecosystem impacts to the health of our communities. GE is not essential to feeding the world. Rather than thinking we can manipulate nature, organic farmers know that when we respect nature, we benefit from the abundance present in web of life. I recommend that you continue to be informed on this issue by visiting some of the websites listed in Jim Riddle’s article on page 4. You can also let USDA Secretary Vilsack know that as an organic non-GE crop producer, you do NOT believe crop insurance, paid for by the victim, is the mechanism to cover damages caused by a technology that has been carelessly introduced without true safeguards.

The AC 21 report is available at online here.

HarrietHarriet Behar,
Organic Specialist
Home Office: 608-872-2164


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