Litigation is the Root of the Problem
Jan 06, 2011
By Reg Clause – Jefferson, Iowa (www.truthabouttrade.org)
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack recently announced that his department may impose severe restrictions on GM alfalfa farmers. If enacted, these regulations would lead to what the New York Times calls “a stark reversal” of previous policies, which have allowed farmers of other crops to take full advantage of 21st-century agricultural technology and produce bounties unimaginable just a generation ago. Secretary Vilsack is undermining his department’s authority and processes in a misguided mission to find a conciliatory solution for a problem that doesn’t exist.
In my own community we have organic farmers thriving next to conventional and without conflict as far as I know. We certainly don’t need courts reversing proven regulatory methods and technological progress in agriculture because a few want to litigate for winners and losers in ag. Agriculture will not benefit from such uncertainty. If the Secretary’s “co-existence” turns out to be geographic designations of where and where not one can use legal products, the matter will be in courts for years, needlessly.
That’s why the U.S. Department of Agriculture should resist the political pressure to stifle farmers who want to grow biotech alfalfa. A consensus of scientists designed the regulatory acceptance process that cleared biotech alfalfa for the marketplace. The products were deregulated by the USDA but somehow this was not good enough for those with an anti-biotech agenda. They can always find a friendly court it seems.
Litigation is the root of the problem in this case and seldom a solution. The enemies of biotechnology have sued to stop conventional farmers from growing GM alfalfa. They insist that modern agricultural practices can’t flourish alongside organic food production--and that pollen drift or bee movement from one farmer’s field of biotech alfalfa could “contaminate” another farmer’s field of organic alfalfa. This notion was laid waste by the USDA’s own robust review processes. Such drift is an unlikely threat, but the USDA nevertheless may impose geographic restrictions and isolation distances on GM alfalfa. Isolation already exists in the organic standard which regulates that sector. That is a label attribute for the organic niche. But again, USDA did not find an environmental or human safety reason to restrict the planting of biotech alfalfa, so why the need to restrict it now? Biotech alfalfa can’t “contaminate” organic crops since it has been declared safe by our government and therefore is not a contaminant.
“We have seen rapid adoption of biotechnology in agriculture, along with the rise of organic and nongenetically engineered sectors over the last several decades,” said Vilsack. “While the growth in all these areas is great for agriculture, it has also led, at times, to conflict or, at best, an uneasy coexistence between the different ways of growing crops. We need to address these challenges and develop a sensible path forward for strengthening coexistence of all segments of agriculture in our country.”
If Vilsack truly wants to follow a sensible path forward, he simply has to embrace the principles of self-regulation--and let farmers enjoy the freedom to pursue their own economic interest. He needs to rely on his agencies regulatory processes and authority, not undermine these existing rules and methods with undefined gatherings of people who will not agree in any case. If the Secretary is interested in a diverse and flourishing agriculture then he should be persuaded to avoid the consequences of his current path. Those consequences will be to keep farmers in courts ad infinitum if a USDA will not enforce and stand behind its own rules.
I’m a veteran alfalfa farmer, so I know this crop. It pollinates tight, which means that it releases only a small amount of pollen and that this pollen doesn’t travel far. So the odds of pollen from GM alfalfa blowing into a field of organic alfalfa start out low. But this isn’t even the relevant issue. GM alfalfa was legal and remains so.
This is where the standards that govern organic food come into play. They don’t require 100-percent purity, which would be an unreasonable demand under almost any circumstance. Miniscule amounts of GM alfalfa can turn up in bales of organic alfalfa without organic farmers losing their certification.
So the system works. It doesn’t require a brand-new set of complicated regulations that inevitably will lead to more conflict and litigation for farmers. What’s more, these restrictions and lawsuits could discourage scientists who hope to develop the next generation of high-yield seeds from working in agriculture. We can’t allow that to happen--not if we’re serious about feeding the world in environmentally sustainable ways.
Biotech and organic alfalfa can coexist right now, but only if we let them and our regulatory system work.
Reg Clause raises cattle, corn and soybeans on a fourth generation family farm in central Iowa. He is a Truth About Trade and Technology board member (www.truthabouttrrade.org)