Coexistence of conventional and organic crops has occurred for decades, and coexistence with genetically engineered crops has been a concern ever since GE row crops came on the market. But coexistence has now resurfaced as a perceived bigger problem as the variety of GE crops continues to increase.
As explained by Mike Gumina, chairman of the American Seed Trade Association and a vice president of Pioneer Hi-Bred, “Coexistence is not just a biotechnology issue. Different agricultural production systems have been successfully practiced in proximity to one another for many years and in many parts of the world.”
Those in the seed industry have learned to make coexistence work when it comes to producing seed and growing different hybrids and crops. He noted examples of yellow field corn, white corn and waxy corn; durum wheat and red wheat; green peppers and red peppers; yellow onions and white onions; and clear eyelet soybeans and dark eyelet soybeans.
But the Obama administration and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack determined the need for addressing coexistence and a 23-member committee was established in 2011. As noted by Cindy Smith with the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture (AC21) has been given the job of addressing the size and scope of risks to coexistence, potential compensation mechanisms for crops contaminated, tools and standards to verify eligibility for compensation and figuring losses and finally who would have to pay.
The original AC21 committee was organized in 2003, and last year the USDA AC21 committee was re-established. There isn’t much talk about the first committee’s success or failure, but it doesn’t seem much came from that committee.
TOPIC AT CROPWORLD
Coexistence was a major topic during the CropWorld North America conference in Charlotte, N.C., during late March at which Gumina; Smith; Mark McCaslin, Ph.D., president of Forage Genetics International; and Rachel Lattimore, partner attorney, Arvent Fox LLP, made comments pertinent to coexistence.
McCaslin said, “I am confident of a mutual interest for coexistence, and from everything that I hear, there is a real desire from all parties to find coexistence principles across all forms of agriculture, whether it is biotech, conventional or organic.”
In an interview following the conference, McCaslin said, “I think there are at least three issues that are in play right now in terms of the interface of organics and GE.”
He noted the compensation issue now being addressed by AC21; “should there be a compensation mechanism for an organic grower that finds adventitious presence (AP) in their crops” is a big issue.
A second issue, discussed by several speakers at the CropWorld conference, is mandatory labeling of foods containing GE traits. He said, “I think consensus here will be difficult. This is both a legal and conceptual issue. If you look at areas that are going to be more difficult to gain consensus compared to others, I would say this is one of the more difficult ones.”
McCaslin is more optimistic about finding common ground on issues concerning seed quality. “I think consensus is possible on establishing appropriate industry standard thresholds for AP of GE traits in organic seed. This is a seed quality/genetic purity issue that is core to both conventional and organic seed interests, and for which evolving scientific methods offer common sense solutions.”
Gumina said, “Historically the producer who is producing the specialty product is the one who has taken the responsibility for hitting the quality specs for their market. And that is true in our industry (seed) for sure. It does take special operations, and you do need to be sure you have the contracts and management practices that will allow you to be successful against the specifications that you are trying to get for your market.”
The seed industry is known for doing multiple-year planning for isolation of crops. To accomplish this, growers and the seed companies put together “isolation patterns that allow us to be successful against our purity standards and the purity standards for the regulatory environment,” Gumina said.
What are needed are realistic tolerance standards other than zero. Gumina said, “What we need are realistic tolerances and market expectations, and I think that has to be related to the biological systems that are out there, and the biological realities that we are dealing with.”
It was noted that even European countries have tolerance standards for imports such as less than one percent of AP. McCaslin is of the opinion that market-specific standards can be established, but there is no one size fits all standard. “I think we can come up with science-based standards that recognize specific market needs.”
NOT A FOOD SAFETY ISSUE
Gumina also said, “Coexistence is driven by marketing conditions and demands. It is not related to safety for food, feed or the environment. We have a very comprehensive food and safety system for the environment. We feel positive about that. We know that when we release things into the marketplace that safety is not the issue.”
Lattimore noted in a presentation slide, “Not withstanding intensive governmental, academic and commercial oversight, not a single instance of actual harm to health, safety or the environment has ever been demonstrated for any GE crop on the market today that has successfully completed the federal regulatory process.”
And if it isn’t a food safety issue, then mandatory labeling should not be on the table for rules and regulation. There is basically 100 percent consensus by those involved in the biotech industry that mandatory labeling should not be involved in coexistence discussions.
Lattimore said federal mandatory labeling of GE foods and feeds is not likely but state regulations for labeling might be passed. “There is no indication that FDA (Food and Drug Administration) would take a position different than the one it has taken in the past. It only considers labeling that is material, and it doesn’t consider the use of genetic engineering to be material. But there are 20 bills at the state level that are pending. One in California would be a ballot initiative if they get enough signatures.”
It was further suggested, by biotech crop advocates attending the conference that those against biotech are trying to use mandatory labeling to attack through the marketplace. An example of such attack is the way that BST ended up being removed from the milk production industry.
USDA HAS EXPECTATIONS
Smith said, “USDA’s bottom line is that we very much support all forms of agriculture, and we very much support a science-based, transport and effective regulatory system for biotech.”
Smith claims USDA is taking a neutrality stance about the upcoming AC21 committee decisions. The attempt to reach conclusions has a timeline of late this year. The 23-member committee has been broken into four work groups.
“The first work group is determining the size and scope of risks in attempting to evaluate the extent of a problem that might be addressed by the AC21 committee,” she said.
If some kind of compensation mechanism is included, then there is a need to determine how to provide that compensation. “The second work group has identified several potential mechanisms including an indemnity fund, crop insurance and risk protection group,” Smith noted.
“The other two work groups are tackling the challenges and questions of who would be eligible for such compensation and who pays for such compensation. You can only begin to imagine how lively those discussions have been,” she explained.
As a conclusion, she said, “So, while there is work in progress, the issues are challenging, there are passions and feelings all around, but the group has maintained a very professional dialogue. We are all interested to see where the group will end up at the end of the process.”