Non-Genetically Engineered Crops May be Vulnerable to Contamination

article image
The USDA's co-existence recommendation puts traditional farmers at risk. 

This article is posted with permission from Center for Food Safety.

The Center for Food Safety (“The Center”) issued a position paper today critical of proposals made by the Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture (AC21), a group appointed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to recommend action on organic and non-genetically engineered (GE) crop contamination issues.  The Center’s sharp response comes as concerns mount over AC21’s proposed “co-existence” recommendations, which would institutionalize an allowable level of transgenic contamination in crops across the U.S.  If implemented, the proposal would infringe upon the rights of farmers to grow non-genetically engineered crops and require the victims of contamination – organic and conventional growers – to buy insurance or pay into a fund to compensate themselves for unwanted contamination, lost markets and other damages.

The Center submitted its paper to AC21 Chairman Russell C. Redding, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and committee members in advance of the group’s meeting next week.

“Co-existence isn’t protection, it is forced genetically engineered contamination,” said Center for Food Safety’s organic policy coordinator Lisa J. Bunin, Ph.D.  “The only reasonable protection for organic and non-genetically engineered farmers is for USDA to mandate a moratorium on the planting of new genetically engineered crops until it can demonstrate that contamination can be prevented.”

At the heart of the AC21 committee’s draft report is the recommendation to prioritize “good neighbor-to-neighbor relations as the key to minimizing transgenic contamination.”  Claiming that farmers prefer “voluntary innovation and incentives,” the committee sidestepped the need to directly protect farmers through mandatory contamination prevention practices and regulations.  While better relations between neighbors can help, they provide no legal, binding or reliable assurances that concrete prevention measures will be taken by the genetically engineered technology users when disagreements arise and a compromise cannot be reached.

The draft report concludes with a recommendation to establish a “compensation mechanism” that will cover inadvertent transgenic contamination of organic farming operations “without assigning fault or blame.”  However, eligibility for compensation is left to conventional farmers – burdening them with establishing proof of  contamination, the magnitude of their loss and the financial value of that loss, as well as demonstrating their “prior intent to produce an identity preserved product.”  The overall concern with this approach is that creation of a compensation mechanism in the absence of mandatory contamination prevention measures serves to perpetuate, rather than curtail transgenic contamination.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, no amount of monetary compensation can redress the fundamental, irreparable issues of transgenic contamination: loss of both a farmer’s right to sow their seeds of choice and the public’s right to feed their families traditional foods, and the genetic invasion of native plants and ecosystems.

“Once again, USDA is seeking to take all the weight off the chemical and biotech industries and drop it squarely on the shoulders of organic farmers, their families and in the communities where they live and work,” said Andrew Kimbrell, the Center’s executive director. “AC21’s ill-conceived solution of penalizing the victim is fundamentally unjust and fails to address the root cause of the problem – transgenic contamination.”

In its response to the AC21 draft report, the Center has offered an alternate solution to the committee’s co-existence and compensation proposal, calling instead for a baseline prerequisite of established, scientific proof that contamination can be prevented before USDA considers the deregulation of any additional genetically engineered crops.

The Center’s response to USDA at the Center for Food Safety’s website.