WASHINGTON, March 18, 2015 – Almost three years after his appointed advisory committee completed extensive studies and a report on coexistence, it appears the issue is still creating heartburn for Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. Infighting between biotech and organic production is harming consumer perception and the industry as a whole, he said during a USDA Stakeholder Workshop on Coexistence last week.
The objective of the workshop, held on the campus of North Carolina State University, was to advance “an understanding of agricultural coexistence and discuss proposals for making coexistence more achievable for all stakeholders.” USDA defines agricultural coexistence as the concurrent cultivation of conventional, organic, identity preserved (IP), and genetically engineered (GE) crops.
Several workshop attendees had participated in USDA’s Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture (AC21), which included organic, conventional and GE crop growers and industry representatives and which met several times between 2011 and 2012. After coming to some agreement on ways to move forward, the group released a report with recommendations for USDA in November 2012. Vilsack said the public comments generated after the report indicate continued division between agricultural sectors.
“In my view both sides of the debate have failed often to speak truly about these issues,” Vilsack said. “This has impacted consumer confidence and trust in GE products…And there’s a risk it will bleed into organic.” He also said a lack of common ground within agriculture increases the likelihood of litigation, and that the divide is “not sustainable and it’s bad for business.”
Vilsack suggested that the pro-biotech community acknowledge that “there is an economic issue some farmers face through unintended presence [of GE genes in organic crops]” and that the organic community acknowledge “there’s room in the marketplace and agricultural production for both biotech crops and non-biotech crops.”
USDA said the workshop and AC21 can serve as an anecdote to public divisiveness. “We’re happy that folks are in the room talking and listening to each other,” a USDA spokesman said. “That can only lead to better understanding and determining positive steps forward, and that’s our goal.”
In a telephone interview, Alan Kemper, president of Kemper Farms and a producer of GE crops, said he looks forward to USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service completing a survey this year of economic losses due to unintended presence. NASS is collecting data on GE presence in its 2014 Organic Survey. Farmers are asked to report loss due to GE presence in organic crops for three most recent occurrences, USDA noted.
“We look forward to that, it was clear that we had no information or data of any potential loss,” Kemper said. “We didn’t want to deal with hypotheticals.” The data is scheduled for release on August 31.
At the workshop, Vilsack summarized some of USDA’s progress on AC21’s suggestions. In response to a suggestion that access to high quality seed be increased, Vilsack said he has reappointed members of the National Genetic Resources Advisory Council (NGRAC), which is examining the issue. Risk management options for organic growers included in the 2014 farm bill also serve to address the committee’s concerns, Vilsack said. AC21 also explored an insurance-based “compensation mechanism” that would trigger if economic losses were suffered by an organic crop from a GE or conventional crop. The committee suggested USDA first conduct more research on the unintended gene flow between crop varieties before a compensation mechanism can be justified. Vilsack recently asked AC21 to hold another series of meetings for a two-year period. Committee members will need to assess the public comments of their last report that inspired Vilsack to air his frustrations as well as continue to put together recommendations for USDA.
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