Friday, September 2, 2011

Compensation for contamination?

USDA Advisory Committee asked to consider compensating producers for unintended biotech traits
September 2, 2011

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack this week charged the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) newly reconstituted Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture to explore whether and how to compensate producers who sustain economic losses as a result of the unintended presence of biotech-enhanced traits in organic and non-biotech crops.

During opening remarks, Vilsack said he wanted the advisory committee to “find illusive answers we’ve been grappling with for some time” related to what he calls the “coexistence” of different crop-production systems. The secretary asked the panel to determine whether a compensation scheme is needed to address economic losses by producers whose crops lose value as a result of the unintended presence of biotech-enhanced events. Vilsack also asked the advisory committee to consider what implementation would require, including what eligibility standards should be established for determining losses and the types of tools and triggers (such as tolerances, testing protocols, etc.) would be needed to verify and quantify such losses to determine eligibility. The third charge assigned by Vilsack was to determine other appropriate actions that would “bolster or facilitate coexistence” among different U.S. agricultural production systems. “I’m confident that people who are smart, reasonable and willing to work can find solutions,” Vilsack maintained.

During the Aug. 30-31 meeting, the advisory committee initiated preliminary discussion on such topics as: 1) determining who is to make payment for such losses; 2) the types of losses that should be covered; 3) whether a public (taxpayer funded) or private solution would be advisable; 4) how the market is responding to the issue; 5) how to obtain data on losses that may be occurring; and 6) identifying the points in the system where such incidents are likely to occur. USDA staff members also discussed the existence of governmental and industry-generated programs that are designed to support “coexistence,” including the Biotechnology Industry Organization’s Excellence through Stewardship Program and the National Corn Growers Association’s “Know Before You Grow” initiative.

North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Douglas Goehring outlined an insurance-type concept in which growers who wish to protect the value of their crops from the presence of biotech-enhanced traits would become part of a risk-retention group — potentially managed by a crop insurance company. He indicated that at least one crop insurance developer has signaled that such a policy could be devised and would not be overly costly. But organic advocates on the advisory committee expressed concerns about having the cost shouldered by those trying to “protect” their crops from “contamination.”

Meanwhile, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan, the architect of the Obama administration’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” program, sidestepped a comment from an advisory committee member who raised concern over the need to address in regulation future situations in which functionally different biotech-enhanced traits could become present in other crops (biotech and non-biotech) for which they are not intended. Specifically cited by the advisory committee member was the recent USDA deregulation of Syngenta’s alpha amylase ethanol-only corn. Merrigan responded that the advisory committee needed to focus on the “big picture” to meet the assignment laid out by Vilsack, and not focus on individual biotech seed issues.

Vilsack on June 24 announced the new members of the advisory committee, which had been moribund for the first two years of the Obama administration. More than one third of the 22 members represent organic and small/minority farm-oriented advocacy organizations, many of whom have strong reservations about — or outright oppose — agricultural biotechnology. Management from two NGFA-member companies were named to the advisory committee: Lynn Clarkson, president of Clarkson Grain Co., Cerro Gordo, Ill., and Jerry Slocum, a soybean producer and president of North Mississippi Grain Co., Coldwater, Miss. Click here ( to see the remainder of the advisory committee, as published in the July 14 edition of the NGFA Newsletter (see page 8).

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