GMO Contamination & Organic Farmers

When Michael Sligh testified before the Senate Agriculture Committee in the fall of 2011, he talked about the need for more corporate responsibility and government oversight on the issue of GMO contamination of non-genetically engineered crops, including organic crops. Even the USDA, he said, has pointed out the need to address how organic and GMO crops can co-exist in the United States, since right now, the costs of genetic contamination are borne almost entirely by the farmers who grow non-GMO crops.

This is not a question of pitting farmers against farmers, or environmentalists against farmers. It’s a question of shaping policy that allows farmers to respond to market opportunities, and allows consumers to make informed choices about what kind of food they want to eat. Consumers in the US and around the world are willing to pay a premium for non-GMO crops. If American farmers are going to be able to compete for their share of that market, something has to change.

Michael got a follow-up question from the Senators: “What is the definition of co-existence?” Here’s what he answered:

Thank you for this timely and critical question, whose outcome will determine whether we as a country can indeed maintain highly diverse and multiple market opportunities for American farmers that meet growing consumer demand for greater food choices. The long-term question at stake is whether US farmers will be able to compete for these markets or whether these markets will be served by farmers from other countries? It would also be our goal to not pit farmers against farmers, but to find holistic and rational policy outcomes, which can be both fair as well as comprehensive.

Put simply, the question is whether farmers employing genetic engineering, conventional, and organic agriculture can thrive over the long term in the US. The challenges stem from two facts: 1) the domestic and global marketplace prizes food products with zero or near-zero levels of material derived from genetically engineered organisms, and 2) biological and physical movement of material derived from genetically engineered crops is difficult to control. The result of these two facts is that simply planting genetically engineered crops can threaten the livelihood of and impose costs on farmers trying to meet the demand for GE-free products.

This issue is a highly charged and controversial topic. To avoid misunderstandings and to overcome past perceptions of the lack of fairness, trust and transparency, I strongly recommend first looking at some basic democratic principles and prerequisites to frame this question in its full context and complexity.

The following principles can guide and shape the prerequisites needed to approach this issue:

Consumer choice – US consumers have the right to choose food that is not genetically engineered.

Consumer right to know – Consumers have the right to know where and how their food was grown.

Farmers Choice and the importance of entrepreneurship – US Farmers should have the opportunities and choice to grow food, feed, fiber, and fish that serve important and lucrative domestic and foreign markets.

Fairness – personal and corporate responsibility must be upheld; if you own it and are profiting from it you are responsible for the costs associated with the prevention of contamination damage. For example, testing for contamination, establishing buffers, reimbursement of lost sales or loss of organic product premiums, clean-up and removal should be borne by the patent holder.

Precaution – Independent pre-market research that includes the socio-economic and environmental impacts of any new technology including its impacts on the structure of agriculture and open competitive markets.

Assessments – Technologies should be assessed for their net public benefits to US agriculture and society. On the basis of such assessment, some technologies may be discouraged or disallowed to insure the success of the whole.

Appropriate regulation – Technologies that pose environmental, economic and health risks should be evaluated before and monitored after commercialization.

Parity – Long-term commitment to the vitality of diverse agricultural enterprises, including parity of public investment, infrastructure, marketing and research resources supporting diverse agricultural systems.

Transparency – on-going documentation and tracking systems must be established to monitor movement of genetically engineered material in the environment and the levels at which such material is found in seed banks and non-GMO seed stocks.

Diversity – Our society and agriculture will greatly benefit from the rapid reinvigoration of public cultivars and breeds to restore genetic diversity to our farms and to ensure greater farmer seeds and breeds choices.

Adherence to these principles can lead to rational and practical policies and regulations needed to truly approach GMO contamination prevention.

Policies that implement these principles should include, at least, the following:

  • Appropriate labeling
  • Liability assignment
  • Contamination compensation funds
  • Comprehensive and independent pre-market assessments
  • Comprehensive regulatory frameworks
  • Increased research on risk assessment, alternatives and the reinvigoration of agricultural genetic bio-diversity,
  • Evaluation of impacts and rationality of utility patents applied to agricultural products,
  • Agricultural contract and licensing reforms.
  • Evaluation of the impacts of seed and marketplace concentration on free and competitive markets

To be very clear, co-existence cannot mean that farmers who seek to avoid genetically engineered material continue to be saddled with the costs of GMO contamination or that they must give up growing certain crops because of the on-going threat of GMO contamination. That is why I prefer to use the phrase “GMO contamination prevention” instead of “coexistence” to more accurately reflect a public policy framework which emphasizes that planting GMOs should not in any way preclude the growing of organic and non-GMO, conventional crops. Moreover, setting thresholds and isolation distances must not be misinterpreted as adequate for GMO contamination prevention. This is a two-way street. Those who seek to avoid GE products must take reasonable precautions to avoid commingling. But when reasonable precautions are not enough, those who own, promote and profit from the technology must be held to their responsibility for the economic and market harm their products cause.

It is also important to recognize that the Secretary is empowered with expansive authority, such as under the Noxious Weed Provisions of the Plant Protection Act (PPA) to broadly assess economic, environmental, public health, agricultural and other impacts of biotech crops and to regulate those crops if those impacts directly or indirectly cause injury or harm.

Thank you for this opportunity to describe some of the key principles and prerequisites needed to approach GMO Contamination Prevention, which if applied could lead to productive, fair and meaningful outcomes.

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