OSA Delivers Comments to AC21 on Coexistence

Earlier this week OSA attended USDA’s latest (and maybe last) AC21 meeting in Washington, DC, to provide public comments and gauge where the current discussion on coexistence is headed. USDA’s Advisory Committee on Biotechnology & 21st Century Agriculture (AC21) was reconvened following the agency’s decision to commercialize GE alfalfa, a decision that spurred a landmark lawsuit. The committee is charged with exploring an appropriate compensation mechanism to address economic harm caused by GE crops, among other charges.

OSA’s comments are below. Stay tuned for updates on AC21, as well as other discussions related to protecting seed integrity.

Comments by Kristina Hubbard

Director of Advocacy & Communications

Organic Seed Alliance

U.S. Department of Agriculture

Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture

August 27, 2012

Good afternoon. My name is Kristina Hubbard and I’m the director of advocacy and communications for Organic Seed Alliance. We appreciate the opportunity to provide the committee comments today. Thank you for your efforts to date.

I have brought with me today two additional documents to submit to the public record. First, an organic seed industry survey that I submitted electronically in May 2012 but was unable to deliver in person. And, two, an article that a colleague and I recently had accepted for publication in the journal Agriculture and Human Values on coexistence.

For starters, the premise of this coexistence discussion, the definition of coexistence used in AC21’s draft recommendations, fails to encapsulate the main concept of the term. The definition refers to the concurrent cultivation of various production systems consistent with consumer choice and market needs. Yet it fails to include the main element and goal, where these production systems affect each other as little as possible in the field and marketplace. If these different systems were successfully coexisting, we would not be here today. We’d like to see a definition that more accurately represents this concept and your goals as a committee.

Organic Seed Alliance believes the recommendations are too narrow in scope, and must be much more comprehensive to address the multifaceted issues at play. The recommendations should also better reflect agriculture’s complexity, and USDA’s role in supporting all forms of agriculture (p. 16).[1]

We agree that any compromises coming out of this committee, or future USDA decisions associated with coexistence, should lead to less litigation. Yet these recommendations lack two essential principles that would move the U.S. toward appropriate policies and tools. These principles include fairness and prevention, and without them, we risk setting a dangerous precedent.

Compensation. Throughout these recommendations the crop insurance model is hailed as a promising compensation mechanism in cases of unwanted genetically engineered (GE) material. We understand that a premise of these recommendations is to avoid administering blame, but such a premise should not sidestep a central question: Does the proposed model adequately reflect the responsibility of all players?

Non-adopters of genetically engineered products, such as certified organic producers, already invest in land, practices, and other measures to avoid excluded methods, like drift from GE material. They shoulder the entire burden and costs of such prevention – and in fact are mandated to take such precautions – as well as the consequences when, despite their best efforts, unwanted GE material shows up in their products. Some farmers, seed companies, and processors pay for testing. Some divert higher value products to less valuable markets when unwanted GE material is found. In so doing they’re taking responsibility for prevention, monitoring, and eradication to protect consumer choice, the integrity of the organic label, and their reputation. It may be hard at times to put a dollar value to these losses and risks, but they are real, whether acknowledged by some committee members or not. Asking producers to invest further by paying for more crop insurance is unacceptable.

I heard today that there is general consensus among committee members that the status quo isn’t good enough. Yet the status quo is this: owners and users of genetically engineered products do not share in the personal responsibility for preventing impacts of GE products. There is no requirement for them to do so.

Our concern is that these recommendations, if adopted, would not only sustain this status quo, but worsen current burdens and costs associated with coexistence for stakeholders who neither use nor benefit from GE technology. This is a dangerous precedent.

This committee’s recommendations should focus on appropriate and proportional responsibility for ownership. Cost associated with prevention and harm must be shared.

The most appropriate compensation plan is only briefly noted in these recommendations and not seriously considered. We believe the most appropriate model is a compensation fund paid into by technology owners. Such a model best takes into account proportional responsibility for ownership.

The recommendations note that if technology owners pay into a compensation fund, this could send a signal to consumers and trade partners that the products are unsafe (p. 6). It does signal the obvious, which is that a genetic technology is a living technology, and therefore a “leaky technology.” This is not an exercise in attributing blame, but a reasonable compromise where all stakeholders take some level of personal responsibility. As one committee member noted today: “We all have skin in the game.”

Furthermore, the crop insurance model being promoted includes “triggers,” which would essentially formalize a threshold level for GE content before a broader industry analysis is conducted about the pros and cons of such a threshold (p. 8). A threshold should only be introduced within a comprehensive framework that involves a meaningful prevention program involving all players (especially adopters and owners of the technology), stronger enforcement and regulatory oversight to support this prevention, a compensation fund paid into by owners of GE technology, and labeling of GE material so consumers have real choice in the marketplace.

The self-insurance model is also inappropriate since non-users of the technology would essentially be paying themselves, and such a model doesn’t attribute responsibility to players contributing to the problem (p. 7).

Prevention. We agree with what appears to be a general consensus in these recommendations that a compensation mechanism should be coupled with prevention through detailed stewardship and outreach activities. We also agree that no stakeholder should shoulder the full cost of burdens (p. 11). Yet moving forward with the number one crop insurance recommendation will only sustain the status quo, and may actually worsen it by making one stakeholder group – farmers who avoid GE products – continue to bear all costs and burdens. Taxpayers should also not shoulder this burden.

The recommendations state that, “Any compensation mechanism that may be put in place that is perceived by one segment of agriculture as placing unfair burdens on that sector will only divide agriculture” (p.6). The document goes on to explain that most AC21 members agree on the importance of having broad participation, access, and responsibility for maintenance of any compensation mechanism. We agree, and believe that while organic and other non-GE agricultural members are participating in prevention and taking responsible measures to protect their products, such participation and responsibility is absent from owners and users of GE products.

USDA and Industry Roles. The problem of unwanted GE material in seed and crops is not just an issue between farming neighbors. The USDA has a role in oversight and enforcement of stewardship practices that help mitigate and prevent the problems. As written, these recommendations lack a meaningful plan for preventing the problem and leave out USDA’s role in ensuring that prevention measures are taken and monitored for their effectiveness. Creating cohesive and comprehensive prevention strategies in the field and marketplace will avoid pitting farmer against farmer. Importantly, prevention strategies should not rely on voluntary compliance.

The assertion that GE crops do not create risks novel to agriculture has been debunked time and time again with the discovery of “super weeds” and the outcrossing of GE crops with weed relatives, among other agronomic, environmental, and socioeconomic challenges. Consumer preference cannot be ignored, and many consumers reject GE ingredients. This has provided a new economic risk.

Given new risks, USDA should bolster its regulatory oversight of GE crops both during the experimental field trial stage as well as after their commercialization. Strict monitoring and proven containment measures should be implemented and enforced. Reporting and evaluation (pre- and post-marketing) would aid scientific research on the direct, indirect, immediate, and delayed effects of GE crops on the natural environment and different agricultural production systems. The USDA should collect baseline data of unwanted GE material in foundation seed to provide necessary information for evaluating the extent of the problem. Furthermore, the agency should initiate a program that routinely monitors gene flow, the presence of GE material in foundation seed, the development of weed resistance, and other impacts.

The recommendations note a need to develop technologies that prevent risk (p. 7). Some of these technologies may be appropriate, while others are not. In particular, we do not support the introduction of genetic use restriction technologies, or “terminator” seed, where second generation seed is infertile. The risks are obvious in the context of food security across the globe, since we are talking about a technology that does not stay put. Given the complexity of agriculture and nature, we do not believe there exists a technological silver bullet to address the multiple challenges that GE crops present.

The recommendations point to the need for stewardship practices and reasonable contracts. Certified organic producers already adhere to stewardship practices by law in the form of an Organic Systems Plan. We encourage the committee to examine the technology agreements that govern GE technology. These contracts transfer full liability to the farmer for a product they essentially rent.

The recommendations note that the committee found it hard to gather data on economic impacts and other forms of harm because the data is often confidential and/or farmers, seed companies, and other stakeholders are reluctant to share this sensitive information. Organic Seed Alliance understands this challenge well; however, we believe the unwanted presence of GE material presents levels of harm beyond economics and markets. It is a disservice to farmers who grow organic and other non-GE forms of seed and crops to disregard negative impacts beyond their control, despite proper stewardship practices. Some of these impacts are difficult to calculate, such as the loss of investments in years of well-adapted genetic capital (i.e., genetic diversity and integrity) or impacts to business reputations and marketing relationships. Genetic integrity is essential to the success of organic farmers, breeders, and the industries they serve.

The recommendations do state that “there are clear data that some organic commodities have been tested and found to contain GE material in amounts that exceed de facto market standards.” Still, there remains a sentiment that legitimate evidence does not exist. For example, the recommendations state that “some members believe there isn’t adequate evidence of economic losses by farmers at this time to justify the establishment of a compensation mechanism” (p. 6). Sustaining such a sentiment only alienates those who experience harm, or are at risk of harm, and are either unable to provide testimony or unwilling to share this sensitive information due to the risks involved.

Lastly, I’m deeply troubled by comments I heard today regarding the public’s involvement in this process, where some committee members have advocated for less transparency and public participation. AC21 is a public committee that should encourage, not discourage, more public feedback moving forward. To date, the public has received short notice of meetings and comment periods, and the process in general has been relatively inaccessible. Hosting each meeting in Washington, DC, makes it difficult for farmers and other stakeholders across the country to attend meetings and provide public comments in person.

[1] Page numbers reflect the draft chairman’s report dated August 17, 2012.

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