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Mixed Feelings on USDA's Coexistence Report

Mixed Feelings on USDA's Coexistence Report
Ag groups weigh in on USDA's efforts to expand agreement among ag stakeholders

More than 4,000 individuals and organizations this week weighed in on USDA's request for comment regarding ways to enhance agricultural coexistence, many advocating for a plan to avoid cross-contamination of organics and genetically modified plants.

The whole concept of agricultural coexistence was presented to USDA's Advisory Committee on Biotechnology & 21st Century Agriculture in 2011. Since then, the group has released a report on fostering coexistence, and now, has just completed public comment on the report's key questions.

Ag groups weigh in on USDA's efforts to expand agreement among ag stakeholders

In the report, the committee suggested that USDA seek out ways producers can collaborate on understanding biotechnology and different growing methods. It made recommendations in five major areas: potential compensation mechanisms, stewardship, education and outreach, research, and seed quality.

But on the Federal Register request for comment, USDA's request for input asked for answers to several questions in four main areas, centering mostly on how to improve cooperation among neighbors with varying production practices.

As a whole, it's a touchy subject that brought out a variety of comments, from farmers and stakeholders questioning how inadvertent GMO crop contamination can be monitored and controlled, to how crop insurance can play a role in compensation for contamination.

Related: USDA Releases Coexistence Report

Because questions about controlling contamination were not directly asked by the USDA, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition member groups said the request "did not get to the heart of the issue."

"While NSAC’s comments do address each question, the majority of the recommendations emphasize the need for a holistic framework that involves several factors absent from the questions," NSAC noted in a statement.

The group recommended that USDA release additional stewardship information, provide a plan for preemptive control of contamination, identify a system of compensation when contamination occurs, and improve mechanisms for responding to chemical drift.

Organic advocacy group the Cornucopia Institute suggested to its supporters that they write in to suggest mandatory measures to prevent contamination, establish shared responsibility for farmers planting GMO and non-GMO and conduct more research to ensure a non-GMO seed supply.

The group also suggested rejection of AC21's compensation proposal, which recommends a crop insurance-based system to protect non-GMO producers against crop loss, which Cornucopia called "unacceptable."

"It would unfairly require organic and other non-GMO producers to spend even more money to protect themselves while GMO manufacturers would completely escape liability for GMO contamination prevention and compensation," a Cornucopia form letter said.

Other ag groups also had their say; American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman said his group was "disappointed" by the implication from activist groups opposed to modern farming practices that there is widespread disagreement when it comes to coexistence and agricultural biotechnology.

"The idea that there is a 'war in the countryside' is not borne out by the personal experience of the vast majority of American farmers or the evidence presented at the meetings of the AC21 committee," Stallman said in a press statement.

"Although GMO opponents talk about a deluge of legal disputes between farmers for unintentional gene flow, the AC21 report didn't identify or find evidence of significant legal disputes among farmers related to coexistence or cases of farmers being threatened legally for unintentional gene flow. Any purported 'war' in agriculture does not reflect facts and is merely the product of an activist agenda that does not reflect the best interest of farmers or American agriculture."

American Soybean Association Ray Gaesser also commented on the absence of legal disputes, pointing out that there is no real evidence that current efforts to achieve coexistence between neighboring producers are not working.

”Farmers of many kinds of different cropping systems have a long and successful history of coexistence," Gaesser said. "Some farmers grow crops for high-quality seed production, some grow specialty varieties within conventional crops, some grow ornamentals or vegetables, and others grow non-GMO and organic crops. All require that the grower hoping to raise one of these premium crops take prudent management steps and communicate with neighbors."

USDA said in November it would hold a public forum regarding its findings from the comment period, and would consider all comments closely.

View comments on the Enhancing Agricultural Coexistence Federal Register docket .

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