Monsanto screws organic farmers -- again.
Biotech crops: USDA panel reports on economic harm to neighboring crops
BY JANE FYKSEN, CROPS EDITOR, AGRI-VIEW | Posted: Thursday, November 29, 2012 10:00 am
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) last week released a long-anticipated report by its Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture, also known as AC21. This committee met for over a year, with the task of designing a compensation mechanism for farmers economically harmed by contamination from genetically engineered (GE) crops (i.e. cross-pollination). USDA recommendations are aimed at foster coexistence between farmers who grow biotech crops and crop and seed producers who don’t.
AC21 has diverse membership that includes university reps, seed companies, the organic industry, and farm and commodity organizations.
In discussions on potential compensation mechanisms, the AC21 considered three potential compensation mechanisms: A compensation fund, which might be funded by technology providers, farmers, or the entire food and feed production chain; a crop insurance-type mechanism, which would likely involve both public financing and farmer choice to purchase the insurance; and a risk retention group, which would essentially be a self-insurance tool that could be purchased by those farmers at risk of economic losses.
In its newly released final report, AC21 recommends that non-biotech farmers use crop insurance or self-insurance to offset sales lost due to biotech material in their crops that exceeds levels set by their buyers. AC21 points to unreliable data on the economic effects of cross pollination. AC21 also recommends USDA focus on collecting better information on these effects and encourages farmers from both growing disciplines to work out local agreements among themselves to minimize pollen drift and assign responsibility when it occurs.
Additionally, AC21 recommends USDA:
• Educate farmers and others in the food and feed-production chain on the importance of coexistence and their roles in stewardship, contracting, and attention to gene flow (Coexistence, according to this USDA committee, refers to concurrent cultivation of conventional, organic, identity preserved (IP), and genetically engineered (GE) crops consistent with underlying consumer preferences and farmer choices.)
• Provide farmers with tools and incentives to promote coexistence through its farm programs and coordination with other organizations
• Conduct research in a range of areas integral to understanding the current state of coexistence and gene flow management, as well as development of improved tools and practices to manage coexistence in the future
• Provide increased assurance about the quality and diversity of U.S. seed and germplasm resources
• Provide a framework for the establishment of a system of compensation for actual economic losses for farmers intending to grow identity-preserved products – if USDA is able to gather adequate loss data to justify such a step.
After careful deliberation, AC21 expanded the scope of the U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack’s charge to include all identity preserved crops. An identity preserved crop is, according to the committee, “a crop of an assured quality in which the identity of the material is maintained from the germplasm or breeding stock to the processed product on a retail shelf.”
The American Farm Bureau is pleased with the outcome of AC21 guidance to Vilsack to enhance working relationships among farmers growing different types of crops, most notably biotech and non-biotech crops, as well as organic crops.
Farm Bureau Vice President Barry Bushue was a member of the AC21. The committee’s findings highlight the importance of diversity in U.S. agriculture and history of successful coexistence in identity-preserved markets, whereby production practices maintain each crop’s integrity and purity. “Finding ways to work together to serve specialty, high-value markets is one of the greatest strengths of the U.S. agriculture industry,” says Bushue.
He highlights the committee’s emphasis on proactive grower outreach and education and determination that a financial compensation mechanism isn’t necessary or justified at this time.
“I’m pleased our committee carefully weighed the evidence, listened to the needs of growers and chose to emphasize improved stewardship and neighbor-to-neighbor coexistence,” Bushue states.
Not everyone is as pleased with AC21’s final report. Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food and Water Watch, thinks the committee completely missed the mark by putting forth an insurance compensation mechanism that would put the financial burden of contamination on organic and non-GE farmers, while, in her view, letting the patent-holding biotechnology companies that create this technology avoid their responsibility.
“It is outrageous that those being most harmed by GE contamination are the ones that would be responsible for paying into an insurance program outlined in the report. The liable party for contamination should be the patent holder of the gene technology – not the farmer who grows its seed. The companies that profit from the technology should develop a fund from which contaminated farmers can be compensated. Yet during the committee’s meetings, there was virtually no discussion about the idea of a patent-holder funded compensation fund,” she criticizes.
“Aside from the fact that organic and non-GE growers should not be responsible for their harm from GE contamination, there are growing concerns that a crop insurance mechanism is not feasible for organic growers. Often, organic growers are reimbursed for losses at conventional prices – instead of receiving the premium associated with their specialized production - and others do not even have access to crop insurance because there is less risk data associated with these crops,” Hauter continues.
“The report also recommends ‘joint coexistence plans’ between GE and non-GE farmers and suggests farmers who enter into the plans would get a reduced insurance premium,” she continues. “This would result in an uneven distribution of benefits, since organic and non-GE farmers would already be paying for most of the farm-level preventative measures to attempt to protect themselves from contamination, in addition to paying for extra insurance.”
Hauter believes AC21’s final recommendations simply perpetuate the status quo, allowing GE gene flow to continue and farmers harmed by contamination to continue to pay for economic losses suffered from a technology they do not want or use. “Instead of favoring the biotech industry, a more equitable solution for the growing problem of genetic contamination would be for the USDA to enact a moratorium on GE crop approvals until the agency develops a stronger stance on preventing contamination,” maintains this executive for the nonprofit Food and Water Watch (www.foodandwater.org).
In particular, GE products in the marketplace are legal products which have been evaluated by scientific experts and regulators, and have been determined to be as safe for humans and the environment as conventional crops. The unintended presence of such materials in others’ crops should not be a topic for assigning fault or blame. The AC21 is operating under the assumption that farmers are generally acting in good faith, although sometimes problems occur. Prevention of problems is preferable to dealing with negative consequences further downstream, either on farm or in the marketplace.
AC21 in its final report points out genetically engineered crops do not create risks novel in agriculture. The principles of coexistence and the need to manage risk and preserve the integrity of crops are successfully demonstrated in the coexistence of specialty crops, like sweet corn and popcorn, and practices within seed production.
To read the full AC21 report, go online to www.usda.gov/documents/ac21_report-enhancing-coexistence.pdf.