WASHINGTON, March, 7, 2012- USDA’s Advisory Committee on Biotechnology & 21st Century Agriculture (AC21) listened to diverse views from the commercial sector this week. AC21 first met in June, 2003. The committee is charged with examining the long-term impacts of biotechnology on the U.S. food and agriculture system and providing guidance related to the application of biotechnology in agriculture.
The current AC21 group’s committee charges from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack include discussing if any types of compensation mechanisms would be appropriate to address economic losses by farmers in which the value of their crops is reduce by unintended presence of GE material.
During their third physical meeting in Washington DC this week, the committee members listened to diverse views on how the commercial sector is addressing unintended GE presence. Here are the highlights of those views:
David Johnson, Cal/West Seeds (AC21 member)
- Runs a cooperative, innovative varieties etc. mainly alfalfa. Breeder seed is produced under hoops and nets, totally isolated from outside bees to protect pollen. Operates in accordance with National Alfalfa and Forage Alliance (NAFA) best management practices.
- “Since the introduction of RRA (roundup ready) we are taking extraordinary steps to plant our foundation fields in isolated areas where no RRA seed or hay is known to exist,” he said.
- Used NAFA grower opportunity zones, which are zones for seed production of APS alfalfa seed and conventional alfalfa seed. As outlined in NAFA Best Management Practices for Roundup Ready Seed Production, RRA seed production would not be allowed in an AP-Sensitive zone. This is one possible solution to coexistence that the alfalfa industry is trying.
- “While we’ve been doing this (AC21 conversations) the alfalfa industry has been hard at work trying to find solutions to figure this all out”
- “Grower opportunity zone had merit (alfalfa) but falls short of adequately addressing the potential for low level presence of a GE trait that could result from alfalfa hay fields in proximity to the seed production fields,” he said.
- Standard isolation practices Cal/West Seeds uses help minimize pollen movement. “That said, there are no practical limits to pollen movement in an insect pollinated crop with both managed and native pollinators.”
- “All of the seed companies in alfalfa are reporting their results to the Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies (AOSCA). AOSCA is providing feedback on an annual basis so the alfalfa companies know if their best management practices need to be changed.”
- To address coexistence: “It seems like there is industry- driven and farmer-driven discussion, but not government-driven discussion.”
Don Cameron, Terranova Ranch, Helm, CA
- Grows a combination of conventional, organic and biotech crops in California.
- When discussing his relationship with farmer neighbors: “We communicate with each other all the time. We do talk, we do communicate. We know what the other grower is putting in. There are no surprises. We have a good network and it’s going well.”
- Our buyers mandate specification on the quality of products, he said. “At that point it’s my decision whether I can meet the demand of that buyer. Certain crops require a greater distance than others. You have to know the biology of the plant and you have to know when to say ‘no’ as a grower. I can’t grow any crop I want to.”
- “We manage the pollen flow, we’ve done so for generations. We were coexisting before the term was actually coined. We have a diversity of crops out there. On our farm we’ve been successful in proving that coexistence does exist. We’re able to do it. Farmers can grow conventional, organic and biotech as long as they follow good management practices.”
- When asked if government incentives are necessary: “We don’t have any incentives. I think this is an excellent way to go, if there were grower education programs out there to show growers how to handle this.” He said some growers make mistakes mostly due to ignorance, but could be improved with a certain amount of timeliness and cleanliness in their operations.
- “I think grower education is needed out there.”
Robin Brekken, Robin Brekken Farms, Crookston, MN
- Farms totally certified organic
- “The bottom line for me and what I do and what I market is: Can I start with clean seed? If I can start with clean seed, the rest is on me.”
- “You have to be very careful with crops that cross pollinate,” he said. “It’s unrealistic for me to say you can’t plant corn on your ground because I’m planting corn over here.”
- He said he relies on starting with clean seed. After that, “the responsibility is on me as a producer and grower to know what my neighbors are up to, what their planting intentions are and to let them know what my intentions are.”
- Robin Brekken Farms requests tests for GMO presence from the seed lot. “It’s harder in corn, because (GE seed) has been out longer. I have dealers telling me, it’s only a matter of time (before no GE-free corn seed exits) and that’s very disheartening.”
Chris Holdgreve, Excellence Through Stewardship
- Excellence Through Stewardship (ETS) is a biotech industry-coordinated initiative to promote the global adoption of stewardship programs and quality management systems for the full life cycle of biotechnology-derived plant products.
- “It’s not intended to replace regulatory programs, but go above and beyond those,” he said. “We believe the principles of ETS are complementary of federal science-based regulations.”
- If a grower joins the program, that grower needs to place the entire scope of the operation in ETS standards.
- “Participants must encourage other biotech growers to adopt these practices,” he explained. “The need for communication across that value chain to ensure seamless continuation of stewardship is a key component of the program.”
Charles Brown, Brownseed Genetics, Bay City, WI
- Brown offers a full line of seed products for corn, soybean and forage production. It is a research-based company, developing high-value conventional and single-trait hybrids for the unique growing conditions in northern climates.
- “I have to really protect my crop and what we’re doing,” he said.
- Target markets are food companies and breeders.
- “What’s happened in the corn industry is some of the major suppliers of inbred lines are not really concerned about the conventional, non-GMO or organic market,” he said. “It’s becoming very difficult to find lines that can be used for non-GMO product.”
“We don’t feel we have a lot of influence over our customers. They tell us what we need,” he said. “We feel the market approach is the way to come at this, with pull-through market incentives. Food companies want non-GMO validation.”
- Brown suggested a program the he described as “a little out of the box,” to address coexistence and seed production with GMO neighbors. He described a type of coexistence zone layout “where we have to work together in a way of getting a handle of how many sensitive acres are present.”
- “To maintain the ability to market high value crop,” he suggested a program with FSA to register crop areas with some kind of incentive from the Agency. “If we sat down and mapped that out, it isn’t as much as you would think,” he said.
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