Organic Farm Supporters Seek Special Treatment

organic farm

A March 3, 2014 story from Reuters by Carey Gillam presents claims by organic farmers that the federal government needs to step in to prevent “contamination” of their fields. So what is the problem that has organic growers hunting for help?

According to the press release uncritically recycled by Reuters, “Growing crops free from contamination by genetically modified crops and the pesticides used on those biotech versions is getting more difficult and more costly for U.S. farmers, and new government rules to control contamination are needed, according to [sic] report… by an environmental organization and an organic food group.”

The first problem with the story is the use of the term “contamination.” What does it mean to “contaminate” something? According to Merriam-Webster, to “contaminate” means “to make something dangerous, dirty, or impure by adding something harmful or undesirable to it.” So is it the right word to use in this context?

Farming is not a sterile endeavor. Farmers literally work in the dirt, and try as they might, it can be a very messy business. Harvests invariably reflect this truth, and nobody who’s ever spent any time on a farm would be surprised to find a bean amongst the corn kernels, or low levels of field corn in sweet corn seed. The term of art for this is “adventitious presence” or AP. We don’t talk about it as contamination because it is not harmful, and it‘s completely unsurprising. So the question arises – what “harm” is caused by the presence of material improved through biotechnology in an organic farmer’s fields or harvests? The answer is straightforward – none. That’s right, zero harm, because there is no hazard.

Crops and foods improved through biotechnology have gone through more scrutiny, in advance, in depth and detail, than any others in the history of agriculture. The few on the fringe who dispute their safety need to deal with an avalanche of inconvenient truths. Claims that research confirming this safety is bought and paid for are similarly contradicted by the data. Safety is just not an issue. The issue of environmental impacts is no different: the data show biotech crops to reduce the environmental impact of production agriculture, on average, by 17%. So the use of the term “contamination” itself is a red flag..

This being said, on its face, the central claim, that  organic farmers might find it difficult to grow their crops so as to prevent even the slightest AP in their harvests of biotech improved materials, may seem to have some merit. This is because biotech improved seed has become the overwhelming choice of farmers in the United States (indeed, wherever they can get access to biotech seeds, around the world).figure5

The reason for this is very simple: seeds improved through biotechnology allow farmers to produce higher yields with lower inputs (pesticides, herbicides, fuel consumption, time, etc…) and less environmental impact, thus increasing their productivity and their bottom lines.

Organic growers insisted that USDA exclude biotech improved seeds from organic production, making biotech a “prohibited method.” The reasons are several, but none are, in fact, grounded in science. Indeed, there is a robust and vibrant school of thought that sees no necessary conflict between biotech and organic production methods, but at the moment they have been shouted down. And organic growers are compensated for this ideological preference, somewhat, by the premium prices they command for their produce.

But is the organic farmers’ ability to command these higher prices jeopardized by biotech crops? And if so, who is to blame? Who should pay the costs?

At this point it seems logical to ask: What is the level of non-organic material allowed in an organic grower’s harvest before he/she would lose certification as an organic producer? The answer may surprise you. There is no threshold of AP for either conventional or biotech material in an organic farmer’s harvest that would lead to a loss of organic certification. Theoretically, an organic grower who accidentally planted a bag of biotech seed (unlikely to happen, since all biotech seed is clearly labeled) would face no sanctions for doing so.

If the mere presence of biotech material in an organic harvest creates no necessary impediment for organic certification, then where is the problem? Reuters reports that “some foreign buyers of U.S. crops will not accept genetically modified versions. Some domestic buyers also want only non-GMO. Contamination can cause financial loss when buyers reject loads that test positive for GMO presence.”

In other words, problems come as a consequence of the preferences of some customers for non-biotech materials. So who was it who assured their customers they could have “GMO free” products, and that there was no need to have agreed levels of allowable AP? The culprits appear to be the same organic growers who now want to make their neighbors pay for the mistake; the neighbors growing safe, legal, more sustainable biotech varieties. The story comes to mind of the child who killed his parents, and then threw himself on the mercy of the court pleading for special consideration because he was an orphan.

It has long been established practice in agriculture (and other fields) that the seller seeking a premium price for an identity preserved product is responsible for the costs of producing that product. This is, in fact, admitted in the “survey” on which the press release cited by the Reuters story is based. It admits that

The USDA organic standards require that organic farmers use certain preventative measures that will minimize the risk of contamination… Due to these requirements, organic farmers end up bearing the burden of avoiding GMO presence from crops planted by their neighbors.

The survey itself has numerous fatal flaws but that much they got right. However,

Food & Water Watch is calling for USDA to start tracking and analyzing incidences of contamination and associated economic losses at all levels of the supply chain. And the group also is asking for USDA to require GMO crop growers to create buffer zones between their fields and non-GMO farm fields, and hold biotech seed companies financially accountable for losses associated with GMO contamination.

In other words, Food & Water Watch is seeking to compel farmers, who are growing safe and legal crop varieties that have become hugely popular with farmers around the world because of the major advantages and benefits they deliver, to subsidize farmers who have voluntarily chosen to grow other crops and enter into unrealistic contracts. The outrageous cheek of this can hardly be believed.

Print Friendly

About the author

L. Val Giddings has nearly three decades of experience in science and regulatory policy relating to biotechnology innovations in agriculture and biomedicine. He works with ITIF to bring intellectual leadership to examination of the constraints inhibiting innovations in these areas, and devising remedies to those constraints.
  • Loren Eaton

    Val, what legal precedent is there to enforce anything like this? Given that farmers who grow GMO aren’t breaking any laws, what right do organic growers have to pick and choose what pollen is acceptable?

  • Anonymous

    First, I believe the word ‘contaminate’ is the appropriate word to use in this context since the genetically modified crops and the pesticides used on those biotech versions are making something (organic crops) impure by adding something undesirable (biotech improved seeds) to it – to use the words in the definition you provided. You have focused on the ‘harm’ part while ignoring the rest of the words in the definition.

    Second, you harp on the fact that biotech improved seeds are the overwhelming choice of farmers. Your persuasion tactic is to basically make people that have a preference for organic food feel they are an inconvenience because everyone else is eating genetically modified crops.

    Third, why is this a dichotomous and adversarial argument in the first place? Different people have different preferences for where their food comes from, and they can surely be accommodated.

    The issue here of creating a buffer zone to protect the integrity of organic produce, whether or not there is a law mandating a certain level of pureness of organic crops, is an important point of consideration and a very practical policy issue for debate. However, your obvious bias against organic
    farming has turned what could be a solutions-focused discussion into a battle
    against two ideologies. Organic farmers, it seems, simply want to maintain a level of quality and pureness that their consumers expect, whether or not there are any laws mandating them to do so. There is nothing wrong with that, and people
    should not have to pick up arms to defend their food choices, which is exactly
    the reaction you gave this very mild-mannered organic- and GMO-eating reader.

  • Loren Eaton

    ‘The issue here of creating a buffer zone to protect the integrity of organic produce, whether or not there is a law mandating a certain level of pureness of organic crops, is an important point of consideration and a very practical policy issue for debate.’ Why should the neighbor of the organic grower be in any way accountable for maintaining an agreement signed by the organic grower only? Does the neighbor get to share in the profits?

  • First Officer

    From the Organic Association’s site: “The conversion of American agriculture to at least 30% organic
    by the year 2015,”

    And here we are in 2013 and sales of biotech seeds continue to rise for the upcoming season. Not exactly a goal match here.

  • First Officer

    The newly moved in Organic farmer knocks on your door and says, “Here i am. Now take half your land out of production !”

  • Anonymous

    Excellent question, and I completely understand it. The situation is a difficult one and I am not sure what the optimal solution would be. I think the point I was trying to make was that there has to be a way to accommodate both farmers and keep losses on either side to a minimum. I see this as an issue of managing the commons. We have a finite space of arable land, and collectively we have to find a way to accommodate everyone. Might does not make right when it comes to natural resources.

  • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

    This is an excellent article. Finally someone is seeking the truth.

    But the truth turns out to be even better, because it turns out there’s no such thing as “contamination” of an organic field by GMOs, even according to the very standards for organic production that anti-GMO organic activists wrote for themselves!

    Spray drift is certainly a valid concern for organic farmers, in some cases. But GMOs are not. Never have been, never will be.

  • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

    That’s pretty much the way urban organic activists see the world First Officer. Most organic farmers are more down-to-earth. But the leadership of the organic industry is indeed that militant.

  • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

    According to the USDA National Organic Program – written, edited, and accepted by the organic industry – there is no basis whatsoever for any action against farmers who grow GMOs.

  • MichelleBelanger

    Turn your comment around, first officer- the factory farmer’s neighbor plants gmo seed next to the fields that the organic farmer has spent the last 20 years building the soil and building a business of customers who want to eat food produced with organic methods. This farmer has developed relationships with his clients and they all (the farmer AND the customers) want to live in a world with healthy soil, considerably less air and water pollution from the factory farm type of pollutants, and seeds cultivated and replanted and developed by the farmer himself, instead of some chemical industry. A neighbor decides he is gonna plant seeds, spray chemicals, fill an open pit lagoon with fecal waste next to the creek that flows through the organic farmer’s land. Does the farmer who is doing all these things in a way that causes the organic fields to be contaminated by over-spray, unwanted pollination and/or water pollution not have any responsibility for the harm he is doing to undermine all those years that organic farmer has put into building his business? A friend of mine had an organic farm near Hillsboro, NC. He had been working the soil for many years and it was beautiful- deep and full of loam. His business was built on customers (like me) who appreciated the way he farmed and the quality of what he produced. A big company that grows plants to sell at the big box garden centers, using very chemical heavy production methods in greenhouses, built said houses right up against his property line, directly next to that beautiful soil. They put industrial- sized exhaust fans on the ends of the greenhouses, pouring a continuous vapor of chemical spew over his fields. Is that just fine with you? After all, that company would swear that their chemical methods were an improvement over farming without that array of chemicals. It seems that you and the writer of this article would believe that the organic farmer never has any standing if he has a different business model than you. My friend had to move and start over. i know how much I have had to work over the last 10 years to get my soil from solid clay to something that resembles loam, and I would be pretty furious if someone came along and started spraying it with a bunch of chemicals.

  • First Officer

    I don’t buy it. 1) Big green houses will have “BigAss” – tm, fans for ventilation of excess heat. 2) He wouldn’t have lost any certifications due to any inadvertent peticide spray on his property. 3) Plenty of Organic farmers do farm and co-exist with their non organic farming neighbors. 4) Since it was a greenhouse, with screening, no doubt, they wouldn’t have to use pesticides continuously and nor ewould they as that is expensive. Profit motive works both ways. Anti-gmoers can’t say all GMO (and not other) seed companies are just in it for the profit and then claim they spray pesticides like mad, which is a waste of money.

    He did not have to move away. He only thought he did.

    https://www.nuvonium.com/blog/view/i-want-a-big-ass-fan

  • WhataSchill

    Talk about circular reasoning: “Biotech couldn’t possibly be bad because so many farmers use these seeds.” All your trend shows is that Biotech marketing (including schills like you) and USDA/FDA cooperation through industry/gov’t personnel overlap (Michael Taylor) are highly effective.The bottom line in the sea of logical fallacies that you present above is that, at least in terms of ecology, we are talking about something whose effects are wholly unknown versus something we know to be positive. Any argument about “feeding the world” is utter nonsense and you know it.

  • Lucy Owsley-Goodman

    of course when we talk about organic agriculture we are talking about a lot more crops than soy and corn (canola, cotton) and as far as sales and growth, Organic is kicking the pants off of commodity ag which has been stagnant for decades

  • Lucy Owsley-Goodman

    several lies in this story such as GMO’s having higher yields. They don’t and never have. Nor do they cut down on pesticides use. As a matter of fat the herbicide resistant types have increased herbicide use at least 10 fold and the beetles that the BT corn killed (that’s right Bt is very species specific and kills only corn root worms, it doesn’t touch things like aphids, flea beetles, earworms and other pests of corn. Nor does it touch fungus).

    Than we get into the coexistance argument. there are plenty of reasons not to allow the current GMO’s crops into Organic. Most are engineered to require herbicides banned in organic practices. Also how GMO’s are managed doesn’t jibe with Organic soil management and anyone who really understands Organic and biodynamic farming knows this. All the rest are simply trying to cr4am conventional farming down the throats of Organic farmers, plain and simple and think they can do it just because they are bigger and richer (but not at all better).Perhaps in the future there will be GMO’s that would fit into Organic farming but they are decades into the future.

  • http://theprogessivecontrarian.wordpress.com/ Bernie Mooney

    How sustainable is a method of farming that its so fragile it needs special protections?

  • stevesavage

    Michelle,
    What if the organic farmer has poorly controlled weeds that have wind distributed seeds to go to the neighbor’s farm? What if the organic farmer’s tilled soil runs off into the local stream? What if the organic farmer’s copper fungicides which never go away move into the ground water or the surface water? What if the Salmonella and Ecoli that persist in the compost are spread?

  • First Officer

    Total Organic sales are 3 to 4 percent of tie total market. Since Organic sales are about 2X times the cost of conventional, that makes about 1.5 to 2 percent of actual production. Conventional is only, “stagnent”, because it is mathematically impossible to grow more than the population itself when you command 98% of production.

  • shepogden

    That Val Giddings “has nearly three decades of experience” is a bit of an understatement, sort of like saying John Boehner has three decades of experience in government. The links and chosen (and links not provided) make the case for Mr. Giddings’ bias. Organic is a marketing order, and that marketing order (despite his assertion) does not allow the presence of his beloved AP. To have the crops that are subject to that marketing order affected without the grower’s choice, such that they no longer receive the price premium (think USDA regulated meat grades), represents a “taking” in the words of the libertarian right, a taking for which the honest growers of those crops demand recognition. Innovation exists on all sides of this question, and there is a subtle language theft going on here, as has been common in the field (check the work of Richard Rorty and George Lakoff for an analysis of this linguistic heist.

  • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

    How interesting that Reuters closed comments on Carey Gillam poorly-conceived article.

  • KT Kacer

    If you use shoddy materials on your property, and by doing so, then there is a severe sewage leakage that comes from YOUR tiles and leaks your sewage all over MY adjoining property. Who should have to pay for the damage/cleanup to my property? I believe you should, I think the courts would agree with me.

  • KT Kacer

    “What does it mean to “contaminate” something? According to Merriam-Webster, to “contaminate” means “to make something dangerous, dirty, or impure by adding something harmful or undesirable to it.” So is it the right word to use in this context? ”

    YES! It is exactly the proper word to utilize in this situation. They are selling ORGANIC produce to people who DO not desire produce CONTAMINATED with your frankenfood. To have this contamination means they cannot sell to their target market. You are destroying their livelihood. “Special” rights indeed! Just like the “special” rights LGBT people want… the SAME rights as everyone else… you right wing fascists seriously need to get new material. The “harm” is not being able to utilize the seed their crops produce for fear of being sued by Monsatano for using “patented” seed w/o paying for it. The “harm” is not having organic produce because of contamination from both GMO crops and the chemical waste produced by the pesticides used by “industrial” farming practices.

  • KT Kacer

    Not telling the truth, twisting the truth into something wholly different from fact, reality or anything vaguely reminiscent of “the truth”

  • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

    Who’s not telling the truth?

  • Benjamin Edge

    While adventitious presence or AP may be the technical or legal term, I have never heard it used and feel much more comfortable using the term contamination. But only from the impure aspect. I can see where organic seed producers or those who want to save their seed might find this a problem. But that brings up the question of “if they are concerned about contamination from GM crops, why aren’t they concerned about contamination from OTHER crops.” Either one would be contamination, and if they are not taking precautions against outcrossing from other non-GM varieties, they don’t have a right to blame GM crops for contamination.

    Are they afraid that they will be found out for doing a sloppy job of isolation in general? Because if they are getting cross pollination from nearby GM, they are also getting cross pollination from every other variety any of their neighbors are growing. In that case, the variety they claim to be selling is not likely, strictly speaking, to be that variety.

  • Benjamin Edge

    Most pesticide applications in greenhouses require that fans be turned off during application. Then you want to let the material dry before turning the fans back on. Otherwise, you are wasting costly chemicals. Because of heat buildup in the summer, that means that you can only apply pesticides during early morning or late in the evening or you will cook your plants from the heat.

    You might get some residual smell from the pesticides, but the overall exposure is not likely to be very high.