By Sara Wyant

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

Washington, Dec. 17 – If you ask the majority of farmers what their top priorities are for U.S. agriculture in 2011, the word “coexistence” would not likely make the list. But Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is quickly moving forward to advance a dialogue that he hopes will address the issue.


“We are at a critical juncture in terms of regulating the products of GE (genetically engineered) agriculture, and at the same time supporting other segments of production,” he told reporters during a teleconference Thursday in which he released the final environmental impact statement document on GE alfalfa.  


Although no final decisions were made, USDA is considering new limits on how and when genetically engineered crops can be planted because of contamination concerns raised by organic producers. For more on that decision, see:

For earlier reports on coexistence, see the 12-8-10 edition of Agri-Pulse.


Vilsack said that USDA will use this opportunity to begin a conversation on how to move forward.


“All three segments—GE, organic, and non-GE—are vital, important, and a part of rural America's success. All three sectors should be able to thrive together. This is what I mean when I say coexistence.


“We will partner with all those who want to roll up their sleeves and work with us and each other to find common sense solutions to today’s challenges.  And we will do so openly and transparently.”


Vilsack scheduled a meeting to discuss this issue for Monday December 20, 2010 from 12:00 noon to 3:30 p.m. in the Whitten Building.

“I know it is short notice, and the week of Christmas, but I hope you too recognize the importance of this issue, and the urgency many farmers feel in getting some clarity around what can be planted, where and when,” the Secretary emphasized in his invitation. The list of those invited has not yet been made public.


While lauding the “great promise” held by advancements of biotechnology, Vilsack also noted “strong growth in the organic sector and in non-genetically engineered production,” during his call with reporters Thursday.


“The rise and growth of all these sectors is great for U.S. agriculture. It means farmers have a range of ways to meet consumer needs and preferences both here and around the world. But, at the same time, another result we're seeing is that all too often there's conflict, or, at best, an uneasy coexistence between the different ways of growing crops. The developers and users of GE products want the ability to use the technology to help us feed our country and the world. And the organic and non-GE sectors are sensitive to the unintended presence of GE material in those product streams,” explained Vilsack.


Members of industry trade groups are concerned that the Secretary is not taking into consideration the longer-term implications of his actions. Over 90% of the soybeans and over 80% of the corn seeds planted in the U.S. include some type of biotech traits. They fear that new restrictions on bio-tech plantings will add to the already high costs of purchasing seeds and send signals to the investment community that research in new, high-yielding varieties needed to feed a growing global population is no longer welcome in the U.S. At the same time, Vilsack’s comments about coexistence could fuel already growing concerns within the European Union’s environmental community that U.S. biotech crops should not be allowed, dampening U.S. export prospects.


“This discussion does not appear to be consistent with the science-based approach promised by the Obama Administration,” noted a trade industry leader who asked not to be identified.


However, the Organic Trade Association (OTA) described USDA’s actions on the Environmental Impact Statement for alfalfa as an “important first step.”

“The Organic Trade Association (OTA) has opposed unconditional deregulation, insisting that policy decisions regarding GE regulation should shift the costs associated with enabling meaningful co-existence from the organic and non-GE sectors to the patent holders of the GE crops, protect organic seed crops, and assure good implementation of requirements to avoid contamination in the first place,” the association said in a statement from Christine Bushway, OTA’s Executive Director and CEO.


“Today’s announcement does show a shift in policy at USDA regarding GE deregulation in that one option under consideration includes mandated agricultural practices, isolation distances and geographic restrictions to reduce the likelihood of contamination. Contamination has real economic consequence to organic farms and product manufacturers. GE-contaminated organic crops and products lose their market value, and the costs to prevent contamination and testing costs to verify that crops and products are free of such contamination are all currently borne by the organic industry solely.”


OTA outlined a list of essential components needed for meaningful co-existence of organic and GE crops, including but not limited to:

·         Assignment of liability to the GE patent holder, including a system of compensation for losses due to inadvertent contamination,

·         Compensation for perpetual costs of co-existence including testing and commingling prevention throughout the supply chain,

·         Preservation of seed stock supply and genetic diversity—critical to food security,

·         Comprehensive environmental, public health and socio-economic assessments prior to deregulation,

·         Retention of regulatory authority by USDA after deregulation GE crops through creation of “commercialization permit” that places the burden of contamination prevention on the planters of GE crops versus the current model where the burden is borne solely by Non-GE and organic farmers and handlers,

·         Labeling of GE crops and product ingredients.


A copy of the EIS for genetically modifed alfalfa can be reviewed at:

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