Thursday, November 17, 2011
USDA weighs biotech compensation plan
By Mateusz Perkowski
November 17, 2011
The USDA is floating the idea of creating a mechanism to compensate farmers harmed by cross-pollination from genetically engineered crops.
The agency has suggested the concept as a way to resolve conflicts between biotech, conventional and organic farmers, but experts say developing such a mechanism would be rife with challenges.
“They’re complex ideas and they’re going to take a while to thrash out,” said Barry Bushue, vice president of the American Farm Bureau Federation and president of the Oregon Farm Bureau.
Bushue is a member of the USDA’s Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture, which was assembled earlier this year to seek common ground on contentious biotech issues.
The committee will hold discussions in late November and early December about the possibility of developing a “compensation mechanism.”
The proposal is likely to come up against skepticism from biotech supporters and opponents alike.
Even if farmers could recover damages under such a system, it wouldn’t compensate other users of non-biotech crops — like organic dairies, which could face a feed shortage due to contamination from transgenic alfalfa, said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety.
The group is involved in litigation with USDA over genetically engineered alfalfa and sugar beets.
“All these businesses — are they going to be refunded for their damages?” Kimbrell said, noting that a compensation mechanism wouldn’t address broader environmental harms. “My fear it’s an excuse for a solution rather than a solution itself.”
Apart from matters of principle, the logistics of creating such a system would also be thorny, they said.
At this point, not much is known about the extent of unwanted cross-pollination from genetically engineered crops, said Bushue. “There frankly appears to be little data about whether there is a risk, and if there is a risk, what form it comes in.”
It will also be difficult to determine the threshold at which biotech cross-pollination causes economic damage to conventional and organic farmers, said Doug Goehring, a committee member and North Dakota’s commissioner of agriculture.
Such thresholds refer to the degree of contamination from biotech genes sustained by an organic or conventional crop.
For example, an organic farmer may enter into a contract that requires a much lower threshold for contamination than mandated under federal organic certification law, said Goehring.
Traditionally, seed farmers have managed plantings to avoid undesirable cross pollination with outside cultivars, he said. The farmers themselves were responsible for meeting purity thresholds.
“If you can’t meet it, who is responsible?” said Goehring. “In my neck of the woods, we try to coordinate and visit with our neighbors.”
Value is another troublesome issue, he said.
The USDA typically measures whether a crop has experienced an insurable drop in value based on the overall futures market for that commodity. If that’s not possible, agency officials research common market prices.
When farmers contract to deliver relatively small amounts of niche “identity preserved” or organic crops, it’s difficult for the agency to establish average prices, said Goehring. “How do you go about determining value when you have limited price discovery tools?”
Exactly who would be responsible for paying for insurance premiums or otherwise funding a “compensation mechanism” for biotech contamination is another sticking point.
Goehring said he’d be concerned about any system under which the insured farmers wouldn’t be responsible for contributing any money.
“If someone else is paying your car insurance, what’s going to prevent you from driving fast and getting into accidents?” he said.
The organic community would likely bristle at any attempt to minimize the extent of the contamination problem, said Charles Benbrook, chief scientist for The Organic Center, a non-profit research group.
The costs associated with such cross-pollination should not be solely borne by any sector within the food system, said Benbrook. Without such a mechanism, battles over biotech crops will escalate.
“It’s simply going to raise the stakes in a knock-down-drag-out fight between the different types of agriculture,” he said.
Aside from compensation, the committee should also look at ways to avoid contamination altogether, said Greg Jaffe, a member and biotechnology director for the non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest.
“It’s an after-the-fact mechanism to address something that’s occurred,” he said. “One would also want to prevent it from occurring in the first place.”