GMO Update: Debating Coexistence as
Court Battles With the Biotech Industry Continue
By Ken Roseboro
Despite consumer and industry concerns over the safety and long-term effects of genetically modified (GM) crops,
they’re not going away anytime soon. The
U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) recent decisions to allow unrestricted growth of
GM Roundup Ready alfalfa and restricted
plantings of GM sugar beets are yet more disturbing signs of this truth. These decisions
were a major setback to organic industry leaders who thought USDA was changing its “
rubber stamp” policy on GM crop approvals and
finally recognizing GMO concerns of organic
farmers and processors.
In 2010, GM crop acreage reached record
levels—with 93 percent of all soybeans, 86
percent of corn, 93 percent of cotton and 95
percent of sugar beets being grown from GM
seeds. As more acres are converted to GM
crops, preventing contamination of organic
crops from pollen drift and seed co-mingling
is increasingly challenging.
So if GM crops are not going away, the
conversation then turns to: can GM and non-GM farmers coexist? If we can’t find a fair and
respectful way to coexist, the fight will likely
lead to more lawsuits similar to those filed to
stop GM alfalfa and sugar beets—and more
consumer letter writing campaigns, so prepare your grass roots efforts now.
New Paradigm Based on Coexistence
The idea of coexistence was brought to the
table last December, after USDA released its
court-ordered final Environmental Impact
Statement (EIS) on GM alfalfa, which proposed two deregulation options: allowing it to
be grown without restrictions or with restrictions including a five-mile isolation distance
and limited plantings in certain states.
In a letter to stakeholders, Tom Vilsack,
secretary of agriculture, said the agency is
“striving to lead an effort to forge a new paradigm based on coexistence and cooperation”
to ensure that all forms of agriculture thrive.
Vilsack wanted to create conditions that
would allow organic, conventional non-GMO,
and GM farmers to grow their respective
crops in the same vicinity without “
contaminating” each other’s land and causing economic harm. Pollen drift from GM to organic
fields has resulted in organic farmers having
crops, such as corn, rejected by buyers after
they tested positive for GM material.
Currently, the responsibility of preventing
contamination falls primarily on the shoulders of organic and other non-GMO farmers,
who must isolate their crops from neighboring GM fields, plant at different times than
GM neighbors to avoid cross-pollination, and
test seeds and harvested crops for GMOs. The
organic industry wants GM farmers to share
the burden by taking steps to minimize GMO
contamination to organic farms.
By calling for coexistence it appeared to
many that Vilsack and USDA were considering a partial deregulation on GM alfalfa with
restrictions. But after facing tremendous pressure from major farm groups and members of
Congress opposed to the coexistence policy,
Vilsack decided to fully deregulate the crop.
The decision was met with disappointment
from the organic industry. Senator Patrick
Leahy (D-VT), who wrote legislation creating
the National Organic Program, released a
statement saying what began as a search for a
workable compromise ended as a “surrender
to business as usual for the biotech industry.”