More Than 150 Businesses, Groups Call for Improved Oversight of GE Field TrialsSecretary Vilsack meets with delegation of farmers, businesses, and organizations
More than 150 farm organizations, food processors, millers, retail companies, bakeries, and seed businesses have signed a letter calling for improvements in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) oversight of experimental trials of genetically engineered (GE) crops. The letter comes after the USDA announced on May 29, 2013, that an Oregon farmer had discovered unapproved GE wheat in his field. Wheat harvests are in full swing as the USDA continues its investigation into the Oregon contamination event. This chance discovery underscores the difficulty of completely containing GE crops and the inadequacy of U.S. policy to protect vulnerable markets that reject GE wheat. “The economic impacts of the GE wheat discovery in Oregon were immediate,” says Clint Lindsey, an Oregon wheat grower who sells to a grain exporter that serves Japan. Lindsey is one of many farmers whose shipments were temporarily put on hold after the unapproved wheat was found. “Our customers are still asking us what measures we’re taking to ensure our wheat doesn’t include GE material,” Lindsey says. “We are the ones who have to pay for testing, which increases our costs. The threat of contamination also undermines the credibility of our business.” Todd Leake, a North Dakota conventional wheat grower who farms more than 2,000 acres, joined Lindsey and other growers in a meeting with Secretary Vilsack last week asking for a halt on GE wheat trials. “It’s extremely important that the USDA moves to protect the conventional wheat industry from the threat of contamination,” Leake says. “Several GE wheat field trials are underway in North Dakota and have the potential to contaminate our spring wheat supply. Our export markets have zero tolerance for GE traits in our wheat products. They’re importation policies are not going to change. If another contamination event surfaces, the consequences would be devastating. We don’t want to lose our export markets to other countries.” Among some of the delegation’s requests were the following:
USDA should halt new approvals of GE wheat field trials at least until the Oregon contamination investigation is complete.
USDA should fully implement recommendations made by investigative bodies and Congress that aim to improve field trial oversight.
USDA should publish a final report detailing the department’s investigation into the Oregon wheat event, including sampling and testing methodologies.
Before approving field trials, USDA should have the appropriate tools in hand to test for unapproved GE traits in cases of suspected and confirmed contamination events.
USDA should require mandated containment protocols for all GE crop field trials.
More than 400 field trials of GE wheat have been approved across the U.S. over the last two decades. However, the introduction of GE wheat was halted in the U.S. ten years ago due to market rejection abroad. Many U.S. food and beverage companies also reject GE wheat. Kurt Staudter of the Vermont Brewers Association, which represents 30 breweries, says his members are deeply concerned about GE wheat making its way into the food supply. “Many of our members have been pioneers in the organic beer world, and they want to ensure sources of non-GE wheat are preserved to meet customer demand,“ Staudter says. “We don’t want wheat to follow the path of GE corn, where complete segregation has not been a reality.” Steve Crider, a government and industry liaison for Amy’s Kitchen, adds: “It’s time for the U.S. to seriously evaluate how GE crops impact the markets we serve. These evaluations must begin before open-air field trials are allowed.” “Annually, we use over 10 million pounds of organic wheat,” Crider says. “Therefore, the integrity of non-GMO wheat is essential to our continued success as a business. ‘GMO-free’ is what our customers demand and expect, both domestically here in the U.S. and our extensive export program abroad into Asia, the E.U., and the Middle East markets we serve.” There are weaknesses in USDA’s oversight of experimental field trials, including how unauthorized crops are contained. Current U.S. policy includes neither mandatory contamination prevention measures nor an adequate system for monitoring the success of containment following trials. “We are grateful that Secretary Vilsack is taking seriously our concerns and recommendations regarding the department’s oversight of GE crop field trials,” says Kristina Hubbard, director of advocacy and communications for Organic Seed Alliance, who joined the delegation in Washington, DC. “Protecting the genetic integrity of seed and crops must begin at the field trial stage. We hope the department moves forward in fully implementing necessary improvements to protect American farmers and the markets they serve. But these improvements will only be as strong as the department’s oversight and enforcement.” “This is an issue that affects all farmers, regardless of convention and their markets,” Hubbard adds. The letter signed by these businesses and organizations call for strong requirements for preventing contamination, including enforceable standards for confining GE crops, as well as active monitoring and testing to ensure compliance. For the full sign-on letter, see below.
About Organic Seed Alliance Organic Seed Alliance advances the ethical development and stewardship of the genetic resources of agricultural seed. We accomplish our mission through research, education, and advocacy programs that closely engage farmers and other agricultural community members. About Rural Advancement Foundation International – USA RAFI is a nonprofit organization that cultivates markets, policies and communities that support thriving, socially just and environmentally sound family farms. RAFI is based in Pittsboro, N.C.