Committee Debates Paying Farmers for GMO Contamination

12/1/2012 7:00 AM
By Chris Torres Staff Writer

A national biotechnology committee has made a set of recommendations on how farmers could be compensated if their crop is inadvertently contaminated due to pollen drift from another farm.

But coming to a compromise on the issue proved more difficult than expected, according to Russell Redding, chairman of the USDA’s Advisory Committee on Biotechnology & 21st Century Agriculture, also known as AC21.

Redding, dean of agriculture at Delaware Valley College and a former Pennsylvania secretary of agriculture, presided over the committee, which met five times over the past year and delivered a set of recommendations on genetically modified (GMO) and non-GMO “coexistence” to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on Nov. 19.

The 23-member committee, which was made up of farmers, ag industry people and government officials from around the country, has been looking into the idea of coexistence of GMO and non-GMO crops in close proximity to each other.

But the committee was also asked to come up with a specific system of compensating farmers in the event contamination of an organic or non-GMO farm from a neighboring GMO farm due to pollen drift caused economic loss.

“It surprised me to the extent that’s where we started the conservation,” Redding said. “We had a real challenge from the committee to have them think seriously of what a compensation mechanism would look like.”

Ultimately, the committee settled on a system similar to crop insurance that would allow producers to buy coverage to protect themselves from a possible loss along with offering a discount in premiums if they are willing to work with another producer to adopt joint coexistence practices on each farm.

Redding said Vilsack is planning to develop an agency action plan based on the report, which would allow Vilsack to work with Congress on authorizing the crop insurance system for this type of program.

Even though the set of recommendations received nearly unanimous approval, many members weren’t pleased with the idea of USDA putting so much focus on paying growers for a potential loss.

“It was so backwards. It was like putting the cart before the horse,” said Mary-Howell Martens, a member of the committee who grows 1,400 acres of organic crops and owns an organic feed business, — Lakeview Organic Grain — in Penn Yan, N.Y.

She said the agency should have asked the committee to focus more of its attention on how to prevent contamination and how to better educate growers on the issue.

Consequently, the committee also issued recommendations calling for more broad-based education and outreach initiatives on crop coexistence and more research money to study it.

“You can’t talk about compensation without talking about first, prevention,” she said. “Maybe compensation comes down the list, but doing things correctly comes first.”

Some of the land Martens farms borders farms growing GMO crops. She said she’s done many things over the years to prevent contamination, including planning her crop rotation around what her neighbors are growing and planting crops at different times to mismatch pollination.

But the idea of getting a payment in the event of a contamination issue on her farm, she said, sends the wrong message and goes against what she believes most organic growers want, which is recognition of their right to grow a crop organically and in turn, making sure other farmers take responsibility for actions on their own farms.

“There still is quite a bit of anger in the organic community that compensation is even considered at all,” she said. “It’s hard and it would be a whole lot easier if our neighbors were eager to work with us and they recognize our rights to purity. All I want is there to be less of a problem of contamination.”

Redding said the committee struggled for months not only to come up with a system of compensating growers, but also to figure out who would pay the bill — the government, other farmers or industry.

He said an insurancelike compensation system, modeled on existing crop insurance programs, is familiar and represents a shared funding responsibility since people pay a premium to buy the insurance and the government underwrites it.

And while many on the committee expressed doubt in a compensation system in the first place, Redding said he believes it presents an option that wasn’t there before.

“It added a third option on the table; litigate, mitigate and now compensate,” he said. “I think at the end of the day, it certainly is better than litigating, perhaps a reasonable extension of mitigation. I think it’s a smart strategy. I think it puts an option out here for production ag that isn’t available right now.”

While many members disagreed with the end product, Redding said just getting people to at least talk about the issue is an accomplishment in itself.

“The report was really significant because it allowed us to have that conversation,” he said. “It’s not a perfect solution. But we couldn’t find one that was a better compromise than crop insurance. It was a hotly contested issue.”

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