We tried that..

I really don’t like to be one who says, “We tried that and it didn’t work.”  That, however, is exactly what I thought about Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack’s “Coexistence Task Force.” After all, we have tried that and it didn’t work.

In 2001 NPSAS initiated talks with NDSU researchers, the State Seed Department, biotech industry representatives, organic producers, conventional gmo and non-gmo producers, and organic certifiers. It was our idea. We felt we needed to be reasonable and work together for a solution to the problem of gmo contamination in organic products and seed stocks. This concern came about originally as the result of questions asked by an organic producer who was considering participation in on-farm variety trials. We asked for guarantees from NDSU that the seed stock which was going to be planted on this producer’s farm contained no contamination by genetically modified seeds. Our land grant university would not give us such a guarantee.

Full of naive optimism, we forged ahead. There were those of our members who thought we were consorting with the devil. Others felt we needed to be reasonable and attempt compromise. The staff and representatives of NPSAS and other stakeholders spent three years working on the idea of coexistence. In February of 2004, it became very apparent that the only best management practices that would be approved by this working group were ones which would place all responsibility for coexistence and maintaining organic and non-gmo integrity on the non-adopters of this technology. The organic representatives and one of the conventional non-gmo producers withdrew in frustration from the talks.

So when the USDA indicated that glyphosate resistant alfalfa might be released with some restrictions as to where and how it could be planted, I was surprised. I really wondered how Secretary Vilsack had gotten that option past the pro-gmo sector. It was my guess that Monsanto folks would have rather had RR alfalfa banned altogether than to have had the precedent set that they and their growers were somehow responsible for containing their technology.

During our ill-fated coexistence task force’s discussions, it was again and again made adamantly clear that WE were responsible for making sure our crops were not contaminated with their genetics. (Actually, we couldn’t use the word “contamination.” They wanted to use “adventitious presence.” We compromised with “unintended presence.”) They maintained that ours was a crop like certified seed and that we were responsible to see that it was what we said it was. They would not see the correlation between someone’s cattle tromping down the neighbor’s field or any similarity with the example of spray drift. They tried to explain to us how organics were actually benefited by gmos. After all, they informed us, they had created a new market for us among people who didn’t want to eat gmos! They condescendingly explained the National Organic Standards to us and showed us loopholes in the standards. They argued for “reasonable” tolerances which meant accepting levels of contamination which required no containment on their part. They avoided anything that would imply any liability or responsibility by the biotech industry or gmo growers.

I was not at all surprised at the outcry from the biotech industry over Vilsack’s proposal to limit planting of gmo alfalfa. That would have set a precedent for responsibility for gene drift which would have had impacts across the nation.

There are those who say that talks of coexistence are important and that we have to continue to be engaged. Maybe. But we should not be deluded to think that the proponents of agricultural biotechnology will ever change their position. There will be never be true coexistence because one side refuses to take any responsibility for their part in getting along.

The Europeans are working on this issue as well. The Danes have set up best management practices for coexistence which outline buffer zones and planting dates which will help to minimize cross pollination and contamination of seed stocks. The responsibility to carry these practices out falls on both the gmo producer and the non-gmo producer. A farmer must register his gmo fields so his neighbors know where the gmo’s are being planted. If all best management practices have been followed and contamination still occurs, then there is an indemnity fund paid for by a tax on gmo seed which may compensate the non-gmo producer for his losses. If the best practices have not been followed, the planter of the altered genetics is responsible for his neighbors’ losses.

The difference between where we are and where the Danes are is that the public has demanded a different solution. Corporations do not have the same power to determine policy in other parts of the world. In this country, the power, in most fights, resides with those with the most money. We will never see such a concession from biotechnology industry in this country. The cost of coexistence will remain with the non-adopter. The biotechnology industry will continue to bluster about “sound science” which means science which supports their position only. They will continue to tell us we have to set “reasonable” tolerances for unintended presence of their genetics. They will continue to enlighten us about the loopholes in the National Organic Standards which enable us to have “just a little” gmo’s in our organic products.

I am not optimistic for coexistence between organics and biotechnology. Eventually, we may have to concede that the biotech industry is right. Zero contamination levels are impossible. Contamination will be so prevalent that eating organic foods to avoid altered genetics will be meaningless. Then we will coexist because, there will be no difference between the two worlds.

I really hate being the one who says, “We tried that before and it didn’t work.” But, nothing seems to have changed from the day seven years ago that the other organic producers and I withdrew from the Coexistence Task Force meetings. I see no reason why new efforts will produce any other results. Expecting something different is one definition of insanity.
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Copyright © 2011 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains

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2 thoughts on “We tried that..

  1. Jerold Bietz

    Can’t help but wonder – does GMO alfalfa lead to genetically modified cows? More seriously, however, I think a bit of better science education would reduce the severity or impact of this problem. First, you can’t prove a negative (i.e., the absence of something). Second, ALL foods are organic – i.e., carbon-based. Third, breeding of GMO crops is only a shorter and easier and less-random approach to the breeding (through crosses and selection of natural mutations) that breeders have been doing for centuries. I grant you that the primary beneficiaries of some GMO crops sometimes seem to be Monsanto and their ilk – but let’s not forgot that there are often significant advantages to these crops in terms of production (less cultivation, e.g.), and GMO may significantly enhance nutritional value (e.g., corn with a more balanced protein composition) or quality (e.g., wheat with with better breadmaking characteristics). And let’s not forgot that there is no evidence that GMO crops are harmful to anyone or anything.

    1. janetjacobson Post author

      Thanks for your comments. I’m not sure, however, if you are saying coexistence is not possible or if it is irrelevant. Or are you are simply trying to convince me that gmo’s are a good thing? Believe me, I’ve heard all of your arguments before.
      First, there are multiple definitions of many words. “Organic” in this case is defined by the National Organic Standards, not the chemical definition of the word “organic,” i.e., carbon-based. Second, no matter how long I wait, corn will not cross with BT bacteria nor will alfalfa become glyphosate resistant on its own. This is not accelerated natural selection or mutation nor is the process as precise as you might think. Third, you seem to be contradicting your first statement (you can’t prove a negative) when you maintain “there is no evidence that GMO crops are harmful to anyone or anything.” Can you prove that? Show me a single long-term epidemiological study that even looks at a possible connection of altered foods and the many things that ail us. There are none. If a farmer’s organic crops are contaminated and rejected by customers who choose not to use foods containing altered genetics, have not gmo’s have caused economic harm?

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