The National Research Council's Committee on Genetically Engineered Crops met this week to seek further input for their study, "Genetically-Engineered Crops: Past Experience and Future Prospects." The committee, chaired by North Carolina State University's Fred Gould, is made up of 18 scientific members of the academic and private systems.
"Our committee has been asked to review available information on genetically engineered crops in the context of the contemporary global food and agriculture system," Gould explained. "One major characteristic is the national and international trade of crops and their products and while we have expertise on our committee, we held this webinar to bring in more expertise."
The study is designed to provide an independent, objective examination of what has been learned since the introduction of GE crops, based on current evidence. The group will assess whether initial concerns and promises were realized and will investigate new concerns and recent claims. The consensus report, complete with findings and recommendations will be available to the public on its release in early 2016, after undergoing a rigorous external peer-review process.
They sought input from three experts: Lee Ann Jackson, a counselor with the World Trade Organization; Lynn Clarkson, president of central-Illinois-based Clarkson Grain; and Randy Giroux, vice president of food safety, quality and regulatory affairs for Cargill.
Safety, not Protectionist, Policies
As background, Jackson shared that the WTO's SPS Agreement maintains a country's right to manage risk to human and plant health but balances it with the expectation that WTO members are expected to avoid unnecessary barriers to trade. "We want to close a loophole to member countries to keep them from using measures meant to reduce risk and instead using them for protectionist actions," Jackson explained.
In general, she added, SPS measure are designed to protect against particular risks, such as pesticide contaminants crossing borders as residue on food, BSE, Foot and Mouth Disease, or the Mediterranean fruit fly, to name a few examples. They are not, however, designed to be used to further protectionist policies of a member country.
Jackson said more than 40 complaints have been brought before the WTO since the process began in 1995. Only 14 have gone through to the end, to a panel report. One such complaint includes the 2003 complaint brought forth by the U.S., Argentina and Canada, which argued that the European Union was not allowing trade of genetically modified crops by creating an excessively long and delayed approval system, effectively creating a moratorium. They also argued that some EU member states were banning the import of GM crops that were already accepted by the EU. Among the WTO's conclusions were that member state bans were not done based on risk assessments; the EU already declared them safe.
Cargill's Giroux noted the U.S.'s world-class grain handling and moving system, which moves billions of bushels of grain quickly and efficiently, but is built on a reasonable tolerance of co-mingling. Today, one in three U.S. acres is planted for export, and many of those countries have strict requirements regarding tolerance levels, often falling around 0.9% for non-GE grain.
"It is paramount that we address asynchronous approvals," Giroux said. "Patchwork is difficult for everyone. And asynchronous approvals will hinder the technology and technology development."
Segregation on the Ground
Lynn Clarkson, well known for his decades of work in linking together global markets and U.S. producers of identity-preserved grain, shared the trials of sourcing the type of grain someone in, say, Japan, might want and providing it at the tolerance level they'd like. Simple tests don't always convey all the information he might need, and more complex ones can be so expensive, they offset any non-GM premiums.
Clarkson works with farmers who raise both GE and non-GE crops. "Our experience is anecdotal but the costs between organic and non-organic are almost identical," he says. "We really don't see any difference in GE and non-GE yield. Between GE and organic, corn yields drop 20%. But the market is now offering 300% of the GE price for organic - $3.80 for conventional corn and $10.50 for organic."
Clarkson points out the U.S. still has to import organic crops because demand has outpaced production. "We're importing 50% of organic corn needs, and we're importing three times as many organic soybeans as are raised here, mostly from eastern Europe," he explained.
He adds that organic is not the same thing as non-GE, because it can have some GE presence. "Organic is the gold standard and to gain organic certification, a farmer has to do their reasonable best to avoid adventitious presence," Clarkson said. "But the organic standard is a process-based standard, not a testing standard. It can have some GE in it."
That lack of testing led to the NonGMO Project several years ago, when retailers put significant pressure on processors to engage in a voluntary standard.
"When you go to a food company and they're buying organic and want to use a non-GMO label, you have to test," Clarkson said. "That changes the risk calculus for farmers. If he's just delivered an organic product and followed the rules, he gets x premium. If we have to put in a test at the tail end of it, he can no longer be confident of getting the organic premium. If has formed contract, may have to withdraw from that contract."
Clarkson adds that the issues surrounding contamination and standards for comingling can create conflicts for farmers. "We would like to support choice, and protect the farmer from being market-dominated by his neighbors," he said.
To make peace, Clarkson would like to see a better "regulatory fence" around the commercial seed pool and encourage good management practices for farmers. He sees possibility in the Pura-Maize gene, in shared buffers and in segregation distances. He'd also like to grant authority to USDA for national policy, that would consider the economic and market impact of new traits.
"It's not just an organic or GE issue but an agricultural issue that keys to purity, choice and market access," Clarkson said. "If a new trait can't satisfy people about meeting these standards, then it should be excluded until it can."
Committee members questioned Clarkson extensively, asking whether he thought coexistence could occur without federal regulations. "I have fluctuated between being optimistic and pessimistic, based on the conversation. I am doubtful now that all seed suppliers will be responsible with technologies. Pollen from a certain corn within a half mile of their field landing on their corn can damage markets for farmers.
"This is extraordinarily disruptive. It's a situation that is disruptive to existing ag markets."
The National Research Council has made the recorded webinar available for live-stream viewing.