WASHINGTON, Sept. 14, 2016 - A committee examining how growers who use different farming systems can coexist expects to have a final report to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack by the end of October.

But at its final meeting last week, Vilsack suggested that the committee has already performed an “invaluable service” by showing how conversations across the farm landscape should be conducted.

“Your capacity to respect one another, to talk to one another, to share with one another, I think has also reflected itself in Congress eventually getting some consensus on a labeling bill which we are now in the process of working through,” he told the members of the Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture (AC21). “I think you all provided the model for people getting in a room, sitting down and beginning the hard conversation and discussion that probably should have taken place a long time ago.”

Vilsack reactivated the committee last December, three years after it had released a report recommending that USDA quantify the economic impact of “unintended (genetically engineered) presence” on farmers who do not use GE methods. That report also recommended that USDA provide incentives for neighboring farmers to develop coexistence plans, but USDA attorneys concluded the department did not have the authority to do that.

A National Agricultural Statistics Service survey of organic producers released earlier this year found that organic farms incurred about $6 million in losses from 2011-2014 due to the presence of GMOs.

In many instances, Vilsack said, the committee’s previous recommendations had resulted in action. For example, he noted that USDA had removed a 5 percent surcharge for organic farmers to receive crop insurance, had established a “whole-farm” risk management tool, and had worked with the Organic Seed Alliance to help set up an organic seed finder database.

At its final meeting, the committee discussed a draft of its final report, which consists of two stand-alone documents: “A Model for Convening Local Coexistence Discussions” and “Factors for Farmers to Consider When You or Your Neighbor are Growing an Identity-Preserved (IP) Crop.”

IP crops can include certified organic crops or those intended for non-GMO or non-GE markets; seed intended for planting; certain GE/GMO crops (such as those with new functional traits), or crops produced using specific varieties and providing specific characteristics under contract (such as blue corn segregated specifically to produce blue corn chips).

In the draft report, the committee said USDA “should explore obtaining additional authority to provide incentives to encourage farmers to develop joint coexistence plans.” Other recommendations included making the reports widely available to farmers and non-governmental organizations such as the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.

As the committee tried to finalize its report at the final meeting, one issue that received a lot of discussion time was seed purity. The draft report noted the division of opinion on the committee. “Some AC21 members believe that seed companies should routinely provide information about the GE content in non-GMO/non-GE seed, or that contracts for IP production should, as a general matter, include provisions relating to the supply of tested seed for those producers,” the draft says.

However, “other AC21 members note that not all non-GMO/non-GE seed is intended to be used to service GE-sensitive markets, and requiring that companies provide such information on all such seed would be unnecessary for many in the marketplace, would drive up costs for all producers, and would potentially expose seed companies to increased liabilities.”

Committee member Laura Batcha, CEO of the Organic Trade Association, said one of the recommendations of the report should address seed purity, given the amount of attention paid to it by the committee.

And committee member Chuck Benbrook of Benbrook Consulting in Oregon offered language that would urge USDA to work with the seed industry to develop guidelines “regarding the necessary level of seed purity for farmers planting into specific non-GE markets for which thresholds have been set for GE content.”

Benbrook’s recommended language received pushback from committee member and Oregon Farm Bureau President Barry Bushue. 

“I’m not comfortable because it seems to me that then USDA is establishing the marketplace,” he said. “I certainly don’t want USDA setting standards to tell me what my contractual arrangements ought to be with individual buyers.”

“That’s not what I’m saying at all,” Benbrook said. “It’s not setting the standard. It’s giving you information about the seed that you’re thinking about buying and whether, at the end of the production cycle, you’re likely to meet your contractual obligation. It’s to help farmers navigate the marketplace as it changes.”

Missy Hughes, corporate counsel and director of government affairs for the CROPP Cooperative/Organic Valley Family of Farms in Wisconsin, backed Benbrook, saying that the USDA research would enable it to advise farmers about what level of GE presence would be acceptable in seed in order for them to meet a standard in the crop.

Angela Olsen, senior adviser and associate general counsel at DuPont Co. and Pioneer Hi-Bred, said it sounded to her as if Benbrook were asking USDA to set requirements for seed, and “I don’t think there should be additional requirements.”


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