Can GE Crops and Non-GE Growers Coexist?
By Genna Reed
Recent lawsuits against the approval of Roundup ready alfalfa and Roundup ready sugar beets have spurred considerable dialogue about the lack of protection for farmers against genetically engineered (GE) contamination. When an organic or non-GE crop is contaminated with GE genetic material, the affected farmer bears the financial burden of possibly losing their market to sell their crop and could face prosecution for patent infringement. This significant economic harm, and the expense farmers go to trying to avoid contamination, is an unacceptable burden put on farmers, and should be the responsibility of the exceedingly wealthy patent-owning biotechnology companies.
On August 30-31, I attended the first meeting of The Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21stCentury Agriculture (AC21), which has been re-chartered by the Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack. The committee is comprised of group of experts, ranging from organic farmers to biotech and seed industry representatives. The purpose of the committee is to participate in important dialogue about “coexistence.” This term was defined by a prior AC21 committee as, “the concurrent cultivation of conventional, organic, and genetically engineered (GE) crops consistent with underlying consumer preferences and ethics.”
At the start of the meeting, Secretary Vilsack charged the committee with three tasks:
- Develop types of compensation mechanisms to address economic losses by farmers related to the unintended presence of GE material.
- Develop necessary tools that would be necessary to implement such mechanisms
- Think about what other actions would be appropriate to help guide coexistence in the U.S.
Vilsack supplemented the charge by reiterating that he has no allegiance to any type of agricultural production, saying, “I have no favorites. You all may, I do not.” Surprisingly, there was no mention of the methods of seed production being like his two sons, who he loves equally, a metaphor he often uses on this issue. Although diplomatic, the secretary’s support of both sides does not necessarily move along the discussion of how to handle accountability for GE contamination. My confidence that the coexistence debate will be settled soon was weakened when Vilsack pointed out that not only is the coexistence issue extremely important, but it will be something that USDA will probably debate for a “long, long, long, long time.”
Once the committee began their discourse, an hour of debate ensued about how to define the word “coexistence,” and specifically, “conventional.” Some members of the committee were unwilling to admit that GE presence was “contamination,” and suggested it be referred to as “adventitious presence.” Others argued that when farmers see unwelcomed seed in their crop, it is considered contamination, not just the understated “adventitious presence.” One organic producer even stated that her industry often calls GE producers “chemical farmers.”
It will be interesting to see the debate that arises in the upcoming three meetings throughout the next year, including the policy solutions that are presented. The types of compensation mechanisms discussed so far have been indemnity funds or private insurance packages for at-risk farmers. Due to budgetary concerns, it seems as if government-funded compensation packages are mostly off the table. And with members of biotech firms on the committee, talk of industry footing the bill was close to non-existent. So the big question really is: who pays?
Yes, the coexistence discussion should include neighborly cooperation, but ultimately, the owner of the seed patent should be financially accountable for damages that occur. The companies are the ones meddling with genes in ways that would not occur naturally, so they should take responsibility for any and all unintended occurrences of those genetic materials. It’s only fair.