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Biotech foes face off in Calif.

Call it the “gene war.” The battle over use of genetic engineering technologies to create plants with new traits, higher productivity and extended geographical range is intensifying. Formidable Goliaths are pitted against each other from coast to coast.

In February, a U.S. District Court judge in Manhattan, N.Y., threw out a case against Monsanto Co. filed on behalf of more than 50 organizations challenging the company’s patents on its genetically engineered, or GE, seeds — chiefly GE alfalfa. Judge Naomi Buchwald criticized the groups for a “transparent effort to create a controversy where none exists.”

On Nov. 6, voters in California rejected Proposition 37, a measure that would have drawn a distinct line between GE and non-GE products.

Key Points

• USDA’s AC21 panel tackles GE gene contamination worries.

• AC21 says growers should unite to contain gene spread.

• Panel proposes insurance to compensate for contamination.

In late August, USDA’s Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture, or AC21, met in hopes of bridging the widening chasm of differences over technology for GE crops. AC21’s 22 members represent biotechnology, seed, organic farming and conventional farming, food manufacturers, state governments, consumer and community development groups, medical professionals, and academic researchers.

AC21 recommendations

By most accounts, AC21 Chairman Russell Redding, dean of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at Delaware Valley College in Pennsylvania, did his best to bring the group to agreement. But the following points fell short of satisfying all:

  • Neighboring growers should cooperate to contain the spread of genes and prevent adverse economic or market impacts.
  • Unlike in Prop 37, no threshold or trigger for contamination is set. However, the report acknowledges that such a trigger will ultimately have to be set for any insurance-based compensation mechanism.
  • The panel sets no responsibility for contamination, and doesn’t call for any actions or financial contribution from technology providers or GE-crop patent holders.
  • A crop insurance model should be implemented to compensate farmers for contamination, if such a mechanism is deemed necessary by the USDA secretary.

Trigger controversy

“The core issue is the compensation mechanism recommendation,” contends Charles Benbrook, an AC21 member who was appointed chief scientist at The Organic Center, but is now a research professor at Washington State University. “It needs to state the basis for eligibility. Hence, we cannot and should not avoid the issue of a quantitative trigger or threshold.

“It seems disingenuous to me for the AC21 to recommend a crop insurance-based mechanism without squarely addressing the threshold issue, since the threshold is an essential part of the package. No company in the crop insurance business would consider developing a policy, nor would they have a way to run the numbers to set rates, without this key parameter being tied down.”

Redding cites both viewpoints raised in the committee’s draft report. One view is that a specific insurability trigger for GE content in non-GE corn and soy products could address many concerns and provide U.S. producers open access to almost all international markets sensitive to GE products.

The counterview is that any USDA action might suggest legal GE products may, under some circumstances, be unsafe. And it’s argued that a trigger would artificially distort a functioning market that could naturally evolve to meet distinct market needs and enable value capture.

Countering forces

Ballot measures, like politics, are fueled by money from both sides. As of Sept. 30, Prop 37 proponents, largely big natural foods companies, had raised $4.1 million. Close to $35 million has come from opponents, including Coca-Cola, General Mills, Nestlé, PepsiCo, and the seed and crop protection companies.

Benbrook sums up the urgency for resolution: “The problems emerging with today’s herbicide-resistant and Bt transgenic crops are bound to grow more serious for the next several years. The scope of coexistence challenges, and the costs and impacts associated with how well coexistence issues are addressed, are going to expand, regardless of protests or the actions of USDA or AC21.”

This article published in the January, 2013 edition of KANSAS FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2013.