GMO Update: Debating Coexistence as
Court Battles With the Biotech Industry Continue
By Ken Roseboro
Despite consumer and industry concerns over the safety and long-term effects of genetically modified (GM) crops, they’re not going away anytime soon. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) recent decisions to allow unrestricted growth of GM Roundup Ready alfalfa and restricted plantings of GM sugar beets are yet more disturbing signs of this truth. These decisions were a major setback to organic industry leaders who thought USDA was changing its “rubber stamp” policy on GM crop approvals and finally recognizing GMO concerns of organic farmers and processors.
In 2010, GM crop acreage reached record levels—with 93 percent of all soybeans, 86 percent of corn, 93 percent of cotton and 95 percent of sugar beets being grown from GM seeds. As more acres are converted to GM crops, preventing contamination of organic crops from pollen drift and seed co-mingling is increasingly challenging.
So if GM crops are not going away, the conversation then turns to: can GM and non-GM farmers coexist? If we can’t find a fair and respectful way to coexist, the fight will likely lead to more lawsuits similar to those filed to stop GM alfalfa and sugar beets—and more consumer letter writing campaigns, so prepare your grass roots efforts now.
New Paradigm Based on Coexistence
The idea of coexistence was brought to the table last December, after USDA released its court-ordered final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on GM alfalfa, which proposed two deregulation options: allowing it to be grown without restrictions or with restrictions including a five-mile isolation distance and limited plantings in certain states.
In a letter to stakeholders, Tom Vilsack, secretary of agriculture, said the agency is “striving to lead an effort to forge a new paradigm based on coexistence and cooperation” to ensure that all forms of agriculture thrive.
Vilsack wanted to create conditions that would allow organic, conventional non-GMO, and GM farmers to grow their respective crops in the same vicinity without “contaminating” each other’s land and causing economic harm. Pollen drift from GM to organic fields has resulted in organic farmers having crops, such as corn, rejected by buyers after they tested positive for GM material.
Currently, the responsibility of preventing contamination falls primarily on the shoulders of organic and other non-GMO farmers, who must isolate their crops from neighboring GM fields, plant at different times than GM neighbors to avoid cross-pollination, and test seeds and harvested crops for GMOs. The organic industry wants GM farmers to share the burden by taking steps to minimize GMO contamination to organic farms.
By calling for coexistence it appeared to many that Vilsack and USDA were considering a partial deregulation on GM alfalfa with restrictions. But after facing tremendous pressure from major farm groups and members of Congress opposed to the coexistence policy, Vilsack decided to fully deregulate the crop.
The decision was met with disappointment from the organic industry. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who wrote legislation creating the National Organic Program, released a statement saying what began as a search for a workable compromise ended as a “surrender to business as usual for the biotech industry.”
“USDA officials had an opportunity to address the concerns of all farmers, whether they choose to farm genetically altered crops, conventional crops, or organic crops, and to find a way for them to coexist. Instead, what we now have is a setback for the nation’s organic and conventional agriculture sectors,” Leahy said.
The Organic Trade Association (OTA) was “deeply disappointed” that the agency was failing to protect farmer and consumer choice. “The organic standards prohibit the use of genetic engineering (GE), and consumers will not tolerate the accidental presence of genetically engineered materials in organic products, yet GE crops continue to proliferate unchecked,” said Christine Bushway, OTA’s executive director and CEO.
“I was very disappointed that the biotech industry once again strong-armed their products through the approval process,” said George Siemon, CEO of Organic Valley.
Negative Impacts of GMOs
As GM crops spread like a bad weed, concerns about negative impacts of GM crops on human health and the environment build. Recent studies show causes for concern:
• A multigenerational study on hamsters fed GM soy found that by the third generation the GM soy-fed hamsters had lost the ability to reproduce. They also suffered slower growth and there was a high mortality rate for their pups.
• University of Arkansas scientists found that GM canola is growing wild throughout North Dakota, a disturbing finding considering that canola can interbreed with many weed species.
• A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that insecticidal proteins from GM corn are entering streams throughout the Midwest. No one knows the impacts of these GMOs on the environment.
• Studies have found that glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup herbicide used extensively with Roundup Ready GM crops, is linked to more than 40 plant diseases, is toxic to beneficial soil nutrients, reduces manganese, an essential nutrient in plants, is causing weed resistance and can be toxic to human cells.
Such negative impacts explain why a 2010 consumer survey conducted by Stonyfield Farms found that 83 percent of organic food consumers say they buy organic foods specifically to avoid GMOs.
Background: Lawsuits to Stop GM Alfalfa and Sugar Beets
Leading up to the discussions on coexistence, concerns surrounding GMOs and their negative impacts on organic and non-GMO conventional crops had led to lawsuits—spearheaded by the Center for Food Safety—to stop genetically modified alfalfa and sugar beets.
In both cases, federal judges “vacated” USDA approval of the crops and ordered the agency to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) released a draft EIS in December 2009 that called for full deregulation of GM alfalfa. APHIS said its analyses “found no GE-sensitivity in domestic sales of organic alfalfa.”
USDA received more than 200,000 public comments about the EIS with the majority of those opposed to full deregulation and raising concerns about contamination of organic and non-GMO alfalfa.
USDA recognized those comments in the final EIS released in December 2010. In a letter to stakeholders, Vilsack wrote, “We have an obligation to carefully consider USDA’s 2,300 page EIS, which acknowledges the potential for cross-fertilization of non-GE alfalfa from GE alfalfa—a significant concern for farmers who produce for non-GE markets at home and abroad.” In the same letter, Vilsack expressed the need for a “better solution” than litigation.
Coexistence Working Group
Vilsack called a meeting of stakeholders from biotech, organic and conventional non-GMO groups to discuss ways to coexist on alfalfa. Following the meeting a “Coexistence Working Group” was formed to discuss coexistence plans in detail and submit a report to Vilsack.
Working Group members included co-chairs George Siemon, CEO of Organic Valley and Mark McCaslin, president of Forage Genetics International and co-developer of Roundup Ready GM alfalfa, along with other representatives from the biotechnology and organic industries, an alfalfa industry group, an alfalfa seed company, a seed certifying agency and a state agriculture agency.
The group found agreement on some issues such as a respect for the different alfalfa markets and a farmer’s right to choose to grow different alfalfa seeds. There were also disagreements on the extent of USDA’s role in the coexistence process and on best management practices to prevent GMO contamination.
The group sent Vilsack a report detailing the common ground and differences they found and wrote: “We are encouraged to report that goodwill can be created among people willing to work together in the hope of finding a better path forward.”
Caving in to Special Interests
GM agribusiness interests saw USDA’s coexistence initiative and proposed partial deregulation of GM alfalfa as a threat to future GM crop approvals. Seven farm groups and the Biotechnology Industry Organization sent a letter to President Obama objecting to USDA’s coexistence policy. Although many other countries have put strict restrictions on GM crops, and some have even banned them, Vilsack was summoned to face a hostile House Agriculture Committee that challenged his authority to restrict plantings of this GM crop. An editorial in Forbes magazine even called for his firing.
The pressure on Vilsack caused Charles Benbrook, chief scientist at the Organic Center and Coexistence Working Group member, to comment, “What’s next, a public flogging in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial?”
In the end, USDA bowed to the pressure and decided on full deregulation. “Approving
unrestricted GM alfalfa is clearly a case of USDA caving in to special interests over public good,” says Liana Hoodes, director of the National Organic Coalition (NOC).
Why GM Alfalfa Is a Big Concern
The lawsuit against GM alfalfa galvanized the organic industry because it represents a major contamination threat. Alfalfa is used as feed for all organic livestock and is the most common legume grown in organic crop rotations. Siemon has said that GM alfalfa “threatens the fabric of the organic industry.”
GM alfalfa is pollinated by bees and other insects that travel great distances and it grows wild near roads and ditches. Experts see major weaknesses in the USDA’s assessment of GM alfalfa. Bill Freese, senior policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety, says the EIS doesn’t address the problem of weed resistance to Roundup herbicide, which is growing exponentially across the U.S. “Weed resistance is becoming huge issue,” he says. Freese and others question the need for GM alfalfa. “Only 7 percent of alfalfa is treated with herbicides. It grows so densely that it crowds out weeds.”
GM alfalfa will also pass on its herbicide-tolerant trait to wild alfalfa, which will become another source of pollen and seed that can contaminate conventional and organic alfalfa fields. The EIS also ignores the impact on honey. Bees will gather nectar from GM alfalfa plants, which they will then consume and convert into honey. “This is another entry point for GMOs (into organic foods),” says Jim Riddle, organic outreach coordinator at the University of Minnesota.
Can’t Coexist Without the ‘Co’
The question remains: is coexistence of GMO and organic even possible? Some organic industry members believe it is. Tom Stearns, president of High Mowing Seeds, an organic seed supplier and plaintiff in the lawsuit to stop GM sugar beets, says “Coexistence is better than trying to ignore the problem. It is important to talk to USDA and Monsanto instead of disagreeing so wholeheartedly that we don’t want to engage with them.” Stearns considers lawsuits to stop GM crops as part of such engagement.
Laura Batcha, OTA’s chief of policy and external relations, says meaningful coexistence requires that all stakeholders—including the biotechnology industry—share responsibility for preventing contamination. “Our basic position is that you can’t coexist without the ‘co.’ The status quo won’t work.”
The fact that the burden of coexistence is placed solely on organic and non-GMO farmers goes against tradition in agriculture, says Fred Kirschenmann, distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. A farmer must fence in livestock so they don’t trespass onto a neighbor’s farm. “The problem today with GM crops is that we’ve reversed that ethic and expect organic farmers to fence the technology out,” he says.
Liability and Indemnity
The organic industry is united in its stand that biotechnology companies must take responsibility when their transgenes contaminate organic crops and cause economic harm to farmers. OTA, NOC and the Organic Farming Research Foundation are calling for liability and compensation to organic farmers who suffer losses due to GMO contamination. NOC recommends that a contamination compensation fund be established under the USDA’s Farm Service Agency or Risk Management Agency through a tax on GM crop developers.
The question of an indemnity fund was a point of sharp disagreement in the Coexistence Working Group with biotech members opposed to the idea and organic members saying it’s essential.
Round Two: GM Sugar Beets
Based on USDA’s decision with GM alfalfa, it seems doubtful that the agency will address GMO concerns of the organic industry in future GM crop approvals unless the courts force it to do so. “This is the first chapter, and this issue won’t go away until there is framework in place to protect farmers and markets,” says OTA’s Batcha.
The second chapter has already begun with a similar lawsuit to stop GM sugar beets, which pose a cross-pollination threat to organic Swiss chard and table beets. Seeds for GM beets are grown in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, a major seed growing area, in close proximity to seed production for chard and beets including organic varieties.
There has been a back-and-forth legal battle over GM beets. Last August, a federal court overturned approval of GM beets. Despite the ruling, USDA allowed plantings of sugar beet seedlings in September in the hopes they could be used to produce seed for this year’s crop. The Center for Food Safety sued to stop the plantings, and the same federal court ordered that the seedlings be destroyed. In December, Monsanto appealed and a federal appeals court delayed the destruction. In February, USDA announced a partial deregulation of GM beets, allowing them to be grown with restrictions. The plaintiffs said they would challenge that decision in court.
More Lawsuits, Rays of Hope
With USDA backtracking on its coexistence plan with alfalfa, organic farmers and processors will turn to the courts for solutions to the contamination threat. “If the biotech developers are not willing to genuinely participate in this discussion then the court system becomes the default option,” says Dag Falck, organic program manager at Nature’s Path Foods. Others agree.
“Instead of settling this issue, USDA’s decision regrettably guarantees further rounds in the courts,” Senator Leahy says.
“Clearly the biotech industry will ultimately be held responsible for negative impacts of their technology,” Benbrook says. “It may take lawsuits or class action lawsuits.”
Despite the setback on alfalfa, Siemon sees rays of hope. In a letter following the decision, Siemon wrote: “The fact that the USDA even considered the impact of Roundup Ready Alfalfa on other forms of agriculture is a big change given the USDA’s usual ‘rubber stamp’ approval with minimal regulatory review of most anything biotech.”
The battle will continue, says Siemon. “We will keep engaging and challenging the USDA in a meaningful conversation about coexistence and protection of non-GMO farming. We are counting on our consumers to vote with their dollars and show the USDA that the future of agriculture is more than GMO food. Now more than ever, organic is the best choice.”
Encouraging consumers to write letters to governmental leaders and to support groups leading this fight is also going to play a large role in this battle. The more consumers voice their concerns, the less the USDA will be able to ignore their pleas.
Ken Roseboro is editor of The Organic & Non-GMO Report and The Non-GMO Sourcebook (www.non-gmoreport.com). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.