Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–November 21, 2012. The National Organic Coalition (NOC) yesterday sharply condemned recommendations contained in the final report of the Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture (AC21), a group appointed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to address transgenic contamination of organic and non-genetically engineered (GE) crops. Of particular concern in the report is the recommendation that organic and non-GE conventional farmers pay for crop insurance or self-insure themselves against unwanted GE contamination. NOC strongly asserts that this proposal allows USDA and the agricultural biotechnology industry to abdicate responsibility for preventing GE contamination, while making the victim of GE pollution pay for damages resulting from transgenic contamination.
“The AC21 report takes responsibility for GE contamination prevention out of the hands of USDA and the biotech industry where it belongs and puts it squarely on the backs of organic and non-GE farmers,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director at Center for Food Safety and a NOC member. “This ill-conceived solution of penalizing the victim is fundamentally unjust and fails to address the root cause of the problem – transgenic contamination.”
In August 2011, USDA convened AC21 and charged it with identifying compensation mechanisms to address GE contamination. The underlying assumption of USDA’s work plan for the committee was that as long as farmers are adequately compensated, GE contamination is a permissible and acceptable cost of doing business for organic and non-GE farmers. NOC has rejected this assumption, as did several members of the AC21. True to its charge, the committee’s final report failed to make a single recommendation holding the patent holders of genetic engineering technologies responsible and liable for damages caused by its use.
“This is a completely wrong approach to tackling the GE contamination problem,” said, Liana Hoodes, NOC’s executive director. “At the bare minimum, USDA must stop approving additional GE crops, and prevent GE contamination by mandating pollution prevention measures, as well as make transgenic polluters, including GE technology owners, pay for their contamination.”
Contamination from GE crops can cause both economic and social harms to farmers in the form of lost livelihood and reputation, and by compromising long-established partnerships and markets in the U.S. and elsewhere. Contamination can severely curtail or eliminate the rights of farmers to sow the crop of their choice and to practice their preferred method of farming. It can also limit a farmer’s ability to collect and preserve non-GE, identity preserved and organic seeds.
According to NOC, an additional shortcoming of the report is the recommendation that GE and non-GE farmer neighbors develop “co-existence agreements” as a means of moderating relationships in light of inevitable contamination. However, “co-existence” indicates some form of equality or a level playing in the situation. This is not the case. It is clear that organic and non-GE farmers are the clear losers under these conditions, as GE contamination precludes them from growing the crops of their choice. Moreover, the recommendation ignores the real-life issues farmers face, including absentee landowners, unwilling or uninformed neighbors, and the power and money backing biotech growers.
“Floating the pie-in-the-sky idea of farmer coexistence agreements is an obvious diversion from the critical issues non-GE farmers routinely confront with respect to GE contamination,” said Ed Maltby, executive director of Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance and NOC member. “We urgently need meaningful regulatory change that institutionalizes mandatory GE contamination prevention practices. USDA needs to stop dragging its heels, get serious and focus on making this happen.”
Beyond Pesticides, a member of NOC, submitted comments in August 2012 expressing concerns about the report’s definition of “coexistence.” Beyond Pesticides wrote that the definition in the draft report fell far short of any true understanding of what it is to coexist and lacked any assurance that the involved parties would receive the necessary protection required in order to effectively coexist. Specifically, it was suggested that the inclusion of a phrase in the definition stipulating that all parties are entitled to assurances against trespass from genetic drift. Coexistence of any kind should include a shared understanding of boundaries and a requirement under the penalty of law to respect those boundaries. Without any guarantee that coexistence will ensure cultivation without trespass, organic and non-GE farmers will be at a significant disadvantage and “coexistence” will result in a severely imbalanced system.
Additionally, Beyond Pesticides notes that if contamination occurs and harm is done, appropriate compensation should always be determined and made available to all affected parties. However, it is more proper to put enforceable measures in place to prevent contamination in the first place, thus minimizing the issue of determining compensation in most cases. Much greater emphasis needs to be placed on the adoption of preventive measures by all parties, in order to minimize circumstances in which contamination could occur.
Earlier this year a U.S. District Court Judge dismissed the case of Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association et al v. Monsanto in which organic farmers, seed growers, and agricultural organizations argued to prevent farmers from being sued for patent infringement by Monsanto should they become contaminated by drift of the company’s GE seed, a legal strategy Monsanto has been pursuing for years. Monsanto’s history of aggressive investigations and lawsuits brought against farmers in America has been a source of concern for organic and non-GMO agricultural producers since Monsanto’s first lawsuit brought against a farmer in the mid-‘90s. Since then, 144 farmers have had lawsuits filed against them by Monsanto for alleged violations of their patented seed technology. Monsanto has sued more than 700 additional farmers who have settled out-of-court, rather than face Monsanto’s belligerent, and well-financed, litigious actions. Seed contamination and pollen drift from genetically engineered crops often migrate to neighboring fields. If Monsanto’s seed technology is found on a farmer’s land without a contract, the farmer can be found liable for patent infringement. Under the current interpretation of relevant law, Monsanto bears no legal or financial responsibility for such contamination.
Organic producers are prohibited by the Organic Foods Production Act from using any crop materials that are genetically engineered. Consumers have come to expect and demand that organic foods are GMO-free. Based on these expectations, some retailers specializing in organic products will test shipments of organic material they receive to ensure that they are not deceiving their customers. A rejection of a shipment from a large retail store can be financially devastating to an organic producer and can be crippling to a farmer’s reputation, community standing, and trust from consumers. This can happen despite the farmer’s best efforts and due entirely to forces outside his or her control stemming from the actions of others. GE contamination can cause serious environmental damage in addition to contaminating non-GM crops and organic farms, including the development of resistant weeds and insects, and the unknown impacts on human health.
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All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.