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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.

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