by Marion Nestle
Nov 11 2013

USDA asks for public input on how to communicate “agricultural coexistence”

I am indebted to Farm Futures for the heads up about the USDA’s just-published request for public input on what it calls “enhancing agricultural coexistence.”

Agricultural coexistence, the USDA says,

refers to the concurrent cultivation of crops produced through diverse agricultural systems, including traditionally produced, organic, identity preserved (IP), and genetically engineered crops.  As the complexity and diversity of U.S. agriculture increases, so does the importance of managing issues that affect agricultural coexistence, such as seed purity, gene flow, post-harvest mixing, identity testing, and market requirements.

My translation: The USDA wants producers of traditional crops and organic foods to stop complaining that GMOs are contaminating their crops, and producers of GMO crops to stop complaining that they get prosecuted if they try to save seeds from year to year.

The USDA explains that it is doing this in response to recommendations from its Advisory Committee on Biotechnology & 21st Century Agriculture.  This committee recommended actions to promote agricultural coexistence in five areas:

  1. Potential compensation mechanisms
  2. Stewardship
  3. Education and outreach
  4. Research
  5. Seed quality

How come the USDA is collecting input on #3 rather than the far-more-likely-to-be-controversial #1 and #2?

Early in 2011, I wrote about USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack’s use of Cold War rhetoric to promote détente between growers of organic and GMO foods.  I pointed out that while the USDA had no intention of backing down on support of GM agriculture, it was at least recognizing the threat to organic production.

I noted that the USDA was unlikely to get very far with this initiative because so many farm groups representing industrial agriculture so strongly objected to Vilsack’s coexistence proposal.  The groups argued that coexistence could “adversely impact all producers of biotech crops, as well as the integrity of the American agriculture system.”

If you can’t do anything about underlying structural problems, try communication.

Have something to say about what it will take to support all systems of agricultural production?  Now is a good time to weigh in.


  • The true threat is lack of communication between neighbors. No matter if you’re growing non-GMO or heirloom or organic or GMO or whatever, many species are going to have cross pollination issues. Heck, even sweet corn can taste off if it’s pollinated by field corn (organic, GMO, or otherwise!). There’s even some unique situations where even the presence of pollen can be a problem (see Mandarin orange farmers in California

    There are many evidence based methods that have been used for years and years to produce seed at varying levels of purity (see the AOSCA guidelines and those methods can be easily adapted to reducing cross pollination.

    So we have the science, and on top of that, the law for coexistence is clear – it’s based on trespass law. I have a responsibility to keep myself and my property off your land, and you have a responsibility to keep me and my property off your land. In the case of pollen, you have a responsibility to take steps to keep any unwanted pollen off your land and I have a responsibility to contain my pollen if you don’t want it – but that takes conversation.

    Want to grow a speciality or non-GMO crop? Talk to your neighbors and either grow a different crop from them or arrange different planting dates so your plants aren’t fertile at the same time. See if your neighbor is willing to plant their non-GMO refuge adjacent to your field as a border. Plant your own border of the same or another crop. These and more are tried and true methods.

    Want a 100% pure crop? Good luck, that’s not how biology works. You lost your chance for that when confused activists campaigned against terminator technology that would have prevented cross pollination, and currently as they campaign against new technologies that would prevent gene flow such as mitochondrial transformation. Your other option is to talk to speciality seed companies about developing lines that aren’t receptive to pollen from other varieties.

    The only people who are making coexistence difficult are those who are refusing to coexist. All of the necessary pieces of science and law are already there. Instead of encouraging outrage, you should encourage conversation.

  • Sam Vance


  • Alexander J. Stein

    A lot of work on coexistence has been done in the EU:
    … with specific research programmes that produced dozens of publications:
    … and where there is a dedicated “European Coexistence Bureau”:
    … and not to forget the sixth(!) coexistence conference that’ll start tomorrow:

  • Am I missing something, or is the elephant in the room the fact that “coexistence” is a moot point if organic crops are already contaminated with GMOs?

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