Who’s Responsible for GMO Contamination?

Hand Holding Black Pen

Contamination is a huge problem for farmers who don’t grow genetically engineered (GE) crops, at times costing them the premium price they receive for their crops as well as costs associated with testing, prevention, and clean-up. Contamination is also a growing burden for the organic and non-GE seed sector.

We have a historic opportunity to fundamentally change the way our government regulates GE crops and to hold the owners of GE products accountable for contamination. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is accepting public comments on “coexistence” recommendations developed by its Advisory Committee on Biotechnology for 21st Century Agriculture (AC21).

Unfortunately these recommendations do not provide meaningful solutions for preventing contamination. We need to tell the USDA that it must focus on preventing contamination to begin with and to place responsibility where it belongs.

Comments are due March 4, 2014.

Submit comments electronically by following this link to Docket No. APHIS-2013-0047.

Submit comments by mail to: Docket No. APHIS-2013-0047, Regulatory Analysis and Development, PPD, APHIS, Station 3A-03.8, 4700 River Road Unit 118, Riverdale, MD 20737-1238

The AC21 recommendations fall far too short for farmers and eaters. Specifically, they fail to:

  • Properly address the regulatory framework overseeing GMOs
  • Mandate contamination prevention measures by those who use or own GE technology
  • Issue a fair compensation mechanism for those harmed by contamination
  • Address the broader economic and environmental issues related to “coexistence” and contamination

Organic and non-GE farmers and handlers have shouldered the burden of contamination for too long. Tell USDA it must:

  • Prevent GMO contamination
  • Fully investigate the state of contamination in our seed and food supply
  • Reform the current regulatory framework overseeing GMOs
  • Reject the proposal to force organic and other non-GMO producers to purchase more crop insurance to protect themselves from contamination
  • Address the broader economic and environmental issues related to “coexistence” and contamination

What should I say in my comments?

Are you a farmer with a contamination story to share? If you are a farmer or handler, share your contamination experiences where you have been directly impacted. Please explain the circumstances and consequences. You can submit an anonymous comment here. Be sure to also include the comments below.

Even if you haven’t experienced contamination, are you spending resources to prevent contamination (e.g., land for buffers, choosing not to grow crops that are at risk, etc.)? What is this costing you?

Are you concerned about GE contamination? Submit a comment now and tell the USDA to:

Not rely solely on communication and outreach to farmers – this isn’t enough to prevent contamination. USDA is seeking input on coexistence in the areas of education, collaboration, and outreach. Specifically USDA wants to know how it can facilitate communication between farmers. Communication between neighboring farmers is a good thing, but communication alone is not a viable solution to preventing and dealing with contamination. The last thing we need is to pit farmers against each other when communication and prevention fails.

Establish mandatory measures that prevent GE contamination. Voluntary solutions to contamination are insufficient – it’s what we have now and it isn’t working. Furthermore, education alone cannot prevent contamination. USDA must mandate best practices to prevent GE contamination by all farmers who use GE seed and require concrete contamination prevention measures on their farms to supplement those already used by organic and other non-GMO producers. It costs more money to clean up contamination than it does to prevent it.

Level the playing field. The burden of preventing contamination currently rests on organic and other non-GMO operations. But responsibility must be tied to ownership. Those who promote, profit from, and use GE products must be responsible for preventing contamination and for covering the financial risks associated with contamination.

Reject AC21’s compensation proposal. Farmers should not be forced to buy crop insurance to protect themselves against unwanted GE contamination. This unfairly requires organic and other non-GMO producers to spend even more money to protect themselves, while GE manufacturers would completely escape responsibility for contamination prevention and compensation.

Adopt a fair compensation proposal. The patent holder should be responsible for segregation and traceability, from seed to plate. They should be held responsible for the economic and market harm their products cause.

Include analysis of the fuller environmental and economic implications of GE contamination and the implications of managing GE crops. These are also of critical importance to the ideas underpinning “coexistence” – how one system of agriculture can directly and indirectly impact the viability of the other.

USDA should implement the following good recommendations from AC21 immediately:

  • USDA should conduct research to ensure there is an adequate supply of improved non-GMO seed that meet the diverse and local needs of farmers.
  • USDA should ensure the continued work of the National Genetic Resources Advisory Council (NGRAC).
  • USDA should create and implement a plan to maintain the purity of publicly held germplasm. The plan should include measures to (1) determine the presence of GE traits in publicly held germplasm stocks, (2) conduct ongoing monitoring of contamination in germplasm stocks, and (3) address contamination if it is identified in germplasm stocks.
  • USDA should also conduct research on the state of contamination in the commercial, non-GMO seed supply.


The Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture (AC21) was established in 2003 to examine the long-term impacts of biotechnology on the U.S. food and agriculture system and provide guidance to USDA on pressing issues related to the application of biotechnology in agriculture. In 2011, USDA re-convened AC21 following the highly controversial approval of genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa. AC21 members were charged with providing recommendations on the idea of “coexistence,” including an appropriate compensation mechanism for dealing with economic harm caused by GE contamination. Last year AC21 members provided Secretary Vilsack with their final recommendations in the areas of (1) compensation, (2) stewardship, (3) education and outreach, (4) research, and (5) seed quality. A public comment period is now open to solicit feedback on recommendations.

Why is this comment period important?

Non-GMO agriculture has shouldered the burden of contamination for too long. This is our opportunity to tell USDA that it must use its authority to (1) implement mandatory contamination prevention measures and protect the non-GMO sector, and (2) ensure shared responsibility for the unwanted spread of GE products, including a fair compensation mechanism that does not further burden those who must avoid, and sometimes are harmed by, contamination.

What is USDA seeking input on?

USDA is asking for input on more than a dozen questions under the topics of education, collaboration, and outreach. The department seeks input on coexistence practices, and, specifically, how the department can support communication between farmers. View the questions in the Federal Register notice.

We believe USDA is skirting the most important question at hand: How do we prevent contamination? Communication between neighboring farmers is a good thing, but communication alone is not a viable solution to the complicated contamination issues at hand. USDA’s questions miss this point.

View OSA’s past comments submitted to AC21 here and here.

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