By Jon H. Harsch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, April 6 – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told organic producers Wednesday that changes are needed to protect farmers' ability to farm they way they like, whether using biotech, conventional, or organic practices. Speaking at an Organic Trade Association policy conference, he said he considers it his job not to dictate “co-existence” rules but instead to get the “good, hard-working, fundamentally sound folks” on both sides of the biotech issue to agree on reasonable solutions among themselves.


Agriculture Secretary Vilsack addressing the Organic Trade Association conference Wednesday. Photo: Agri-Pulse.

After listing the many ways USDA programs support organic farming from establishing and enforcing standards to providing research funds and value-added producer grants, Vilsack explained that in the sensitive area of dealing with new biotech crops one important USDA tool – the Plant Protection Act – is “not fully fleshed out, in the sense that regulations have not been fully established for all its provisions.” Some of these provisions, he said, address such hot-button issues as noxious weeds and economic harm potentially caused by biotech crops. He assured the producers that USDA is in the process of finalizing the needed regulations in order to “properly evaluate biotech crops” and their potential impacts.

Vilsack said the the basic challenge is that “It is really difficult to use the Plant Protection Act to address economic issues.” He said “The authority is not as broad and it is not as expanded as it would need to be” to allow USDA to address economic impacts such as when an organic grower can no longer market his or her crop as organic due to cross-pollination from a neighbor's field. He said his answer is for “both the biotech side and the organic side” to create a reasonable process to deal with potential economic damage caused by biotech crops to non-biotech conventional or organic producers. He said “Right now there really isn't an effective remedy and there needs to be if we are going to have the opportunity for both of these approaches to survive.” He noted that he will be meeting with seed industry groups in his continuing efforts to resolve the issue.

While waiting for stakeholders to work out some prescription for co-existence, Vilsack said USDA is taking steps such as growing non-GE (non-genetically engineered) alfalfa in an isolated location to maintain sufficient non-GE germplasm. He added that USDA researchers are also looking for “some kind of protection mechanism within a plant that would basically reject any foreign pollen.”

Responding to demands that USDA should apply the “polluter pays” principle to the spread of biotech crops, Vilsack said he has no “preconceived notion” about possible solutions for dealing with potential economic damage. As a lawyer himself, he said it would be difficult to either sue a neighbor for contamination or sue a seed company (an option which triggered loud applause). He said another possible option would be to create a compensation fund “where it is not a matter of pointing fingers, it's just a matter of being compensated because you've been damaged.” But he explained that rather than having USDA or Congress impose a solution, “There ought to be a conversation involving everybody that is impacted by this – you, your neighbor, the seed company, and anybody who's interested in rural development.”

Vilsack concluded that “I see my job as not dictating the answer or not even indicating what I think the answer ought to be. I see my job as putting people in the room” to find a solution among themselves.

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