The conflict over genetically modified crops and pesticide use played out in a somewhat strange place this week: the public comments Web page for a report from a little-known USDA committee.
More than 4,000 people — nearly all of them supporters of organic and related practices — weighed in by Tuesday’s deadline, hoping to convince USDA that organic farms will be overcome by genetically modified, or GMO, pollen and pesticides wafting in from nearby fields if the department adopts the definition of “coexistence” suggested in the report.
In stark contrast, the American Farm Bureau Federation said that farmers are already good at coexisting, and that the organic supporters’ fears are overblown.
USDA’s Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture, or AC21, is headed by Russell Redding, a former Pennsylvania secretary of agriculture and current dean of agriculture and environmental sciences at Delaware Valley College.
The committee called for comments in November on its report on ways farmers with different production methods can coexist.
USDA’s recommendations are concerned primarily with avoiding pollen drift from GMO crops to non-GMO plants and compensation if that does occur. Such genetic contamination can void a farmer’s ability to sell those crops as GMO-free.
After the comment period was opened, the term “coexistence” quickly became a byword among organic and non-GMO supporters, who were fresh off a campaign, coordinated with mainstream farm groups, including Farm Bureau, for public comments on the Food Safety Modernization Act that garnered more than 25,000 comments.
Organic groups did not have traditional farmers’ support in the coexistence fight. Instead they attacked the production practices of their recent allies and warned that it would be nearly impossible to get along with them in the long term.
“The farmer choosing to grow non-GM crops should not be expected to bear primary responsibility and cost for avoidance strategies and/or possible market loss due to something they have no control over,” Mary-Howell Martens, an organic grain farmer from Penn Yan, N.Y., and a member of AC21, wrote in her comments.
Dale Moore, AFBF’s executive director of public policy, said in his organization’s comments that farmers have always had to shoulder those burdens.
“One fundamental principle has applied throughout the history of diverse cropping systems: The entity who derives value from a premium, differentiated crop accepts responsibility to implement the production practices necessary to preserve the value of that crop,” Moore wrote.
Farm Bureau also had a representative on the AC21 committee: Barry Bushue, its vice president.
Martens wrote in her comments that the presence of GMO traits is a form of trespassing and should be legally treated that way. She declined further comment for this story.
“Nobody’s fooled by the fact that coexistence’ is a code word for status quo,’ ” Brian Snyder, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, or PASA, said in a phone interview.
PASA was one of the groups that urged its members to criticize the coexistence report.
To add insult to injury, Snyder said, companies like Monsanto have brought charges against farmers for growing crops that were accidentally pollinated with GMO traits without paying the company’s technology fee.
However, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected that notion in January when it declined to review a case that several organic groups brought against Monsanto asking for a court order to prevent the company from suing over trace pollen contamination.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, whose opinion the Supreme Court upheld, found that, following company policy, Monsanto had sued only farmers who held back GMO seeds from crops deliberately grown from Monsanto seeds.
The company’s seeds come with the right to grow them for one crop, not the right to propagate them for future years.
None of the plaintiffs in the suit offered evidence that their crops had been contaminated, or that Monsanto had threatened to sue them, the opinion stated.
Moreover, farmers have long-established techniques for minimizing pollen drift “to make sure that blue corn stays blue, for example, or that popcorn pops,” wrote Moore, of the Farm Bureau.
The cooperative spirit embodied by coexistence has long been a hallmark of farming, Moore wrote. Farmers frequently make arrangements with neighbors, and the National Organic Program directs organic growers to have buffer zones around their crops to prevent contamination.
Harry Wimer, an organic vegetable farmer from East Earl, Pa., said in his comments that neighborliness goes a long way.
Although coordination may not be possible in every farmer’s situation, Wimer said he works with his conventional-farming neighbors to ensure that they can all make a living.
For example, “our neighbors have also been gracious enough to agree not to spray pesticides within 25 feet of the property line in order to enable us to use that land for our organic crops,” Wimer said.
Wimer said he and his neighbors also set things right if their practices accidentally damage each other’s land.
Many anti-GMO commenters told USDA that they were concerned about the crops’ safety, some going so far as to call them “poison,” even though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers them safe.
“Coexistence is not about health or safety; it is about finding ways to improve working relationships when different production systems are used in close proximity,” Moore, of the Farm Bureau, wrote.
Snyder said that there should be a “no-fault assumption” about a particular farmer supplying GMO pollen that lands on non-GMO crops. He also suggested that all GMO seeds be taxed to create a pool of money for compensating victims of GMO contamination.
A compensation mechanism is not necessary, Andrew Walmsley, the Farm Bureau Federation’s director of congressional relations, said in a phone interview.
“We don’t hear (GMO contamination) from our membership as a widespread problem,” Walmsley said.
The AC21 report says that while some GMO contamination incidents have been reported, committee members were divided on the prevalence of the problem. Not much data exists about GMO drift, the report says.
While USDA is focused mainly on the issue of pollen drift, “we have a much broader thought about what that definition (of coexistence) should be,” Snyder said. “We think the much bigger concern is pesticide drift.”
Gary Kendall, an organic farmer from New Berlin, Pa., addressed that issue in his public comment. “If a product can’t be confined to its intended location, it shouldn’t be on the market,” he wrote.
Genetically modified crops resistant to common pesticides like 2,4-D and dicamba may soon be approved for commercial use. 2,4-D can drift as far as a mile or two, much farther than glyphosate, Snyder said.
Even now, 2,4-D is the third most used pesticide in the U.S., according to Industry Task Force II on 2,4-D Research Data.
Chemical companies are coming out with versions of 2,4-D and dicamba that address drift concerns, and proper application procedures alleviate drift problems, according to a report from the Purdue Extension.
“They’re a lot better than the old formulations,” Walmsley, of Farm Bureau, said.
“Because weeds are gaining resistance to glyphosate, there’s a likelihood of more use of these pesticides, even in cocktails,” Snyder said.
U.S. pesticide use fell 58 percent between 1996 and 2011, helped by the country’s broad adoption of GMOs, according to Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot, British agricultural research consultants.
Rather than talking about coexistence, Snyder said, it would be better to talk about a strategic plan for diverse agriculture.
“At its heart, I think we all know that agriculture has to be diverse,” he said.
The committee focused on coexistence because Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack asked it to consider the issue two years ago, said Redding, the committee’s chairman.
“We (the committee) talked about it in a very general way, but it evolved,” Redding said.
While “tension was palpable” at the beginning of the coexistence discussion, the committee found common ground by agreeing that all farmers should be free to choose their production methods, and that all farmers should respect each other, he said.
“A very spirited, substantive discussion” ensued, which led to the committee’s report, which was released in November 2012, he said.
“I’m pleased with the conversation, as well as the substantive recommendations, that came out of the committee’s work,” Redding said.
Now that the public comments are in, the committee will read all of them “to see what is possible, what is important,” he said.
Redding said he has read some of the comments already. “You’re going to get the full range of opinion on this topic,” he said.
USDA wants to get the committee together in the next few months to discuss the comments, though the committee will have to plan around the planting schedules of its farmer members, Redding said.
One thing that is already clear, Redding said, is that USDA should do more research on the current state of coexistence and that the agency will need to ensure that the germplasm, genetic material needed for conventional seedstock, remains unadulterated.
“We’re anxious to take the next step” and put into practice the results of the committee work and public comments, he said.