WASHINGTON, June 15, 2016 - A federal advisory committee has moved closer to finding common ground on the thorny issue of how farmers who grow crops in different ways can coexist on the landscape.

The Advisory Committee on Biotechnology & 21st Century Agriculture (AC21) first prepared a report in 2012 on enhancing coexistence among differently grown crops – conventional, organic, genetically engineered and identity-preserved (defined as “a crop of an assured quality in which the identity of the material is maintained from the germplasm or breeding stock to the processed product on a retail shelf”).

AC21 reconvened last year and has met three times since, with the goal of delivering a report to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack before Election Day. The committee was asked to answer the following questions “Is there an approach by which farmers could be encouraged to work with their neighbors to develop joint coexistence plans at the state or local level? If so, how might the federal government assist in that process?”

At a meeting Tuesday, members disagreed over the some of the contents of the future report, in particular, how much space to allot one of the report’s possible components, a section addressing future challenges and two “complex issues”: functional traits, such as crops engineered to produce pharmaceutical substances, and seed purity.

A draft of the “complex issues” component noted that crops with functional traits should be “grown in such a way that they are strictly isolated from any nearby production that could potentially be affected by their presence.”

Even a “closed-loop” growing system may be inadequate to prevent traits in one crop from affecting another crop nearby, the document says.

“Farmers not growing crops with functional traits, but near to a production sites (sic) for such a crop, may be disadvantaged if their buyers believe that there is a risk that their crops may be compromised by the nearby functional crop production,” the document says. “This creates potential economic risk for those nearby farmers (i.e., for being able to sell their crops) and poses a challenge for coexistence among neighbors.”

Regarding seeds, the document said growers trying to produce non-genetically engineered crops face “two primary constraints: availability of suitable seed varieties and getting assurance that the seed that they purchase is of appropriate quality/purity to produce the desired crop. Addressing these constraints is important for farmers to be able to produce the crops they intend to grow according to the specifications of their contracts or markets, and therefore for coexistence.”

At the end of Tuesday’s session – the second day of their two-day meeting – AC21 Committee Chairman and Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding acknowledged “that there are issues that are not resolved.”

How these issues are dealt with in the final report will be important, he said, stressing that they must be placed in the proper context.

But even including a discussion of challenges to coexistence seemed like overkill to AC21 member Leon Corzine, a farmer from Assumption, Illinois and former National Corn Growers Association President. “I think it just adds bulk that will be a detriment to our report as a whole,” he said.

And Angela Olsen, senior adviser and associate general counsel at DuPont Pioneer, said she thought the draft section on seed purity and functional traits was “disproportional.” She suggested adding some bulleted items to address those issues. “I don’t think (those issues) need to be standalone,” she said, adding that other issues such as pollination and cleaning out combines could also be discussed separately.

But Laura Batcha, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, said she was disappointed by the opposition to including those sections in the report. While acknowledging that they need work, she said, “I’m really not ready to agree to eliminate them from the outline.”

Melissa Hughes, director of government affairs at CROPP Cooperative/Organic Valley Family of Farms in Viroqua, Wisconsin, supported including functional traits and seed purity in the report.

“With the seed conversation, we can never talk about that too much,” she said. “There are producers who want seed with no GMO material in it.”


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