by Marion Nestle
Sep 7 2011

USDA seeks method to compensate farmers for GM contamination

I am a long-time reader of Food Chemical News, a weekly newsletter covering a huge range of food issues and invaluable for someone like me who lives outside the Beltway and does not have access to the ins and outs of Washington DC politics.

An item in the August 30 issue caught my attention:  USDA secretary Tom Vilsack’s instructions to his department’s new Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture (AC21).

Get this: Vilsack told AC21 to come up with a plan for compensating organic or conventional farmers whose crops become contaminated by GM genes through pollen drift.

According to Food Chemical News, Vilsack gave a three-part charge to the panel:

  1. What types of compensation mechanisms, if any, would be appropriate?
  2. What would be necessary to implement such mechanisms?
  3. What other actions would be appropriate to bolster or facilitate coexistence among different agricultural production systems in the United States?

Vilsack urged the committee to address the questions in order and not yield to temptation to address the third question first.

“This is a very specific charge,” Vilsack stressed. He also told the AC21 not to worry if their proposed solutions would require an act of Congress or new regulations. “Don’t worry about the mechanism. We’ll figure out how to make it happen.”

Why is Vilsack doing this?

“What motivates me is an opportunity to revitalize the rural economy,” the agriculture secretary declared. “I have no favorite [type of agriculture] here. I don’t have that luxury. I just want to find consensus. I believe that people who are smart and reasonable can find a solution.”

Responding to a question from panel member, Vilsack said the AC21’s failure to come up with solutions would result in “continuation of what we have today….If we want to revitalize rural America, we can’t do it while we’re fighting each other.”

Deputy USDA secretary Kathleen Merrigan cited the recent droughts and flooding as an “overwhelming time for agriculture.”

I wonder how we are going to prevent the loss of more farmers and encourage young people to take up farming….you have to come up with scenarios where there’s lack of data.  You don’t have to figure out the politics.  That’s my job and the secretary’s.  Just answer the questions [in the charge] and let us carry the water.

Interesting, no?

Could this possibly mean that instead of Monsanto suing organic or conventional farmers whose crops get intermingled with patented GM varieties, Monsanto might now have to pay the farmers for the damage caused by the contamination?

I can’t wait to see what AC21 comes up with.

  • Anthro

    Is there a time frame on this? When might we expect to hear something from the group?

  • Thank you for this good news! This is EXACTLY why I read your blog! It made my day!

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  • Steve Gilman

    Since there’s only 6 out of 23 appointees on this committee who are connected to the wider organic community, I wouldn’t hold my breathe on what recommendations will come out of it. Big Biotech is pushing for the Crop Insurance model — where the farmer pays and pays to protect themselves from GE contamination. But while Biotech enjoys all the proprietary benefits of their patent protections (now subject to a lawsuit by 85 farming groups) they shirk the responsibilities. Plainly LIABILITY GOES WITH THE PATENT HOLDER and the Biotech corporations should set up an ongoing fund to compensate contaminated farmers…

  • Cathy Richards

    Amazing news that was ignored by the mass media. Thanks for letting us know marion. Hope they can come up with something good and get ‘er dun before the US election.

  • Very big news indeed!

    On another note, the third question posed by Secretary Vilsack gets at a very important point: Can the industrial food system and the sustainable food system coexist? What would (should?) such a system look like?

  • chuck

    unfortunately monsanto will never be effected as much as the independent farmers they have railroaded.

  • JGN

    Fine to prepare elegant mechanisms to compensate for damage sustained from GMOs, sasquatch, asteroids and such. I assume there will be a series of intemediary steps involving actuaries and science-based evaluations.

    The real risk is very manageable with ordinary concepts of casualty and liability insurance. Coexistence might be possible after all.

  • Dominic

    There is no need for any new “method” or compensation “mechanism”. That’s what the court system and civil litigation is all about.

    So it sounds more like a desperate plea to “control” or somehow limit the amount of pollution compensatory damage awards that could cripple the biotech industry. That justice according to established ground rules may be metered out is exactly the “problem”.

  • Donna

    Great news

  • Fred

    I as a taxpayer should not pay for damage due to a defective product, the manufacturer’s shareholders should foot that bill.

  • Marion, thank you so much for reporting this.

    It would be a huge step forward to simply protect farmers from litigation. One step further: could we think about retroactively compensating farmers who have been sued and in some cases bankrupted and forced off of their farms because of unwanted genetic drift? No doubt this would be difficult, and it certainly wouldn’t undo the damage that has been done. But these farmers should not be left to struggle for mere existence when a clear wrong has been acknowledged.

    When considering how to move forward in protecting farmers from GMO contamination, an insurance model is inappropriate. An additional financial burden on farmers, whose profit margins are already razor thin, is unrealistic. Additionally, the purpose of insurance of any kind is to provide coverage for damages caused by an uncontrollable event. The use of GMO crops is utterly controlled and methodical – and if the people who use them do not use them responsibly, they are the people who should be penalized, not those who suffer because of others’ indiscretions. Simply put, farmers shouldn’t have to pay to protect themselves from a danger that shouldn’t be there in the first place.

  • Jill

    While this at first glance appears to be good news, what happens when we follow the consequences of this? What happens when GM crops contaminate all organic crops? Then no more organics for consumers. Or the definition of organic must be changed to include GMO’s. This is exactly what BigAg wants and has been fighting for – to allow GM products into organics. Waters everything down. And what about the rights of consumers and farmers – don’t we have a right to grow crops without them being contaminated? Even if compensated – that’s just money – what about the consequences to our health?

  • seakat

    He’s still pushing for co-existence, which we all know isn’t possible – but it is a tiny positive step.

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  • Jessica

    Thank you for this positive news. Although the media clearly isn’t interested enough to let people know about this, I believe it is high time that someone at least acknowledge what a great wrong these large biotech companies are doing to the farmers. When you have a potentially dangerous proprietary product(or at least a product a large amount of people are interested in protecting themselves from)that is easily spread by wind and insects, I don’t think you should be able to sue the people whose property your product blows(or is flown) onto. I hope the least that comes out of this is protection for any farmers(not just organic) whose property happens to get in the way of wind or insect borne GM pollen. I think it’s a travesty that our court system has allowed any patenting of genes at all, but that’s a discussion for another day. In the meantime, thank you for another bit of news that is important to me, but obviously not the mainstream media.

  • Elizabeth

    This is an interesting development, a turn in the tables. However, it is all about money. And the availability of organic food is NOT all about money. It is about safety and purity in our food supply.

    What compensation can be offered a farmer who is trying to protect an heirloom corn variety who loses a whole year’s crop to contamination? Money won’t do it.

    And the potential for harm to organic dairy is immense. What will compensating organic alfalfa farmers for the contamination of their crops do for organic dairy farmers who can’t find organic feed? This affects grass-fed farmers as well, who feed alfalfa when sufficient pasture isn’t available.

    And it won’t do anything at all in the third world countries.

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  • Phil Bereano

    I am told that he will be pushing for a type of crop insurance–in other words, the responsibility will be on the organic and conventional farmers, not the polluters!

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  • Laurie

    If we are not vigilant and vocal , our government will betray us and our right to clean organic foods in the same way that the Vaccine damage compensation board is for kids and people dammaged by the government endorsed vaccines. Instead of being allowed to sue the companies who produced the vaccine or those who pushed it on people, there is a lenghty and often fruitless process that never makes the vaccine companies financially and legally responsible for VACCINE IJURIES AND DEATHS. iNSTEAD, OUR TAX DOLLARS PAY THE AWARDS TO THOSE DAMAGED. How stupid is that? Make the companies pay for their mansaughter,and we have hope they will stop manufacturing dangerous products (such as GMO seeds or heavymetal laden vaccines). They are like unruly dogs and we must put a collar on them so they can be trained by repeated shocks from their electronic collars every time they cross the line or injure someone. Bad dog! You will get shocked every time you disobey. Finally you will learn or be put in a place you can not hurt anyone anymore. Presently the FDA and USDA let these nasty companies run free, terrorizing the people and destroying property, crops, and people’s health. We need a new dog catcher-the FDA is a failure.

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  • Brent BT

    I can understand, given the pitch of the outcry by organic farmers about such “contamination”, why this topic is getting high-profile attention by Vilsack and others (note that this will not keep the organic blogs from dragging his name through the mud for nothing more than having a definite viewpoint on agricultural technology, go figure). From a biological perspective, this all still seems like much ado about nothing. Setting aside the glaring reality that modern breeding has created titanic and virtually undefined changes in crop biology by comparison with the precise and carefully scrutinized changes made by the addition of a few carefully selected genes, the impact of those few genes when they drift in small quantities into an organic field and find their way into a few saved seeds is truly miniscule.

    Those fancy traits will suffer the same ignominious fate of most novel genes in any gene pool in nature: without selection, they will disappear. Unless organic farmers for some bizarre reason start using glyphosate, roundup resistance has no selective advantage. Unless organic farmers completely give up on pest management and let all the plants die except those that happen to have Bt genes, and then save those seeds for planting, they will never be fixed in the farmers seed stock. Unless organic farmers find sophisticated ways to screen for other quality traits and perform artificial selection to retain them, those traits will never provide the natural advantage to fix them in the population.

    So, why is Vilsack on this bandwagon? Because he’s not a biologist, he’s a former governor! Otherwise he wouldn’t be able to sustain interest long enough to get the regulatory code written.

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