(Beyond Pesticides April 20, 2016) A recently released study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) assesses the actions of three government agencies responsible for regulating genetically engineered (GE) crops, finding several shortcomings in the process. The report, which was commissioned by U.S. Senator Jon Tester (D-MT), is entitled Genetically Engineered Crops: USDA Needs to Enhance Oversight and better Understand Impacts of Unintended Mixing with Other Crops. The report finds that while the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have taken some steps to regulate GE crops, USDA’s failure to update its regulations that oversee GE crops has created a large data gap on the extent and impact of the unintended mixing of GE and non-GE crops. To address this, GAO recommends, among other things, that USDA set a timeline for updating its regulations and include farmer’s growing identity-preserved crops in its survey efforts to better understand the impacts of unintended mixing.
The issue of coexistence between farmers using genetically engineered (GE) crops and non-GE farmers is as important as ever. GE crops pose a constant threat to the livelihood of organic farmers and undermine the burgeoning growth of the organic industry. A 2014 study released by Food and Water Watch and the Organic Farmers’ Agency for Relationship and Marketing (OFARM), in response to USDA’s Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture (AC21) report in 2012, found that one-third of organic farmers have experienced GE contamination on their farm due to the nearby use of GE crops . Over half of these growers have had loads of grain rejected because of unwitting GE contamination. These rejections can lead to big income losses for farmers, with a median cost of approximately $4,500 per year, according to the survey.
Additionally, several farmers report annual losses of over $20,000 due to the need to establish buffer zones, while limit the threat of contamination from their neighbors by taking contiguous farmland out of production. There have also been several high profile cases of GE contamination of organic farms. In May of 2013, USDA announced that unapproved GE wheat was found growing in an Oregon wheat field. In September of 2013, USDA refused to take action or investigate after it was confirmed that GE alfalfa contaminated non-GE alfalfa in Washington State, claiming that contamination is a “commercial issue” and should be addressed by the marketplace and not the government.”
Contamination of non-GE crops, particularly USDA certified organic crops, is a serious concern. Worries about harm to human health and the environment have prompted several state legislatures to consider bills that would require labeling of products with GE ingredients, so consumers know what ingredients are in products before they purchase and consume them. This sparked a response at the federal level as Republican lawmakers took action to prevent state and local GE labeling efforts by proposing a bill that has come to be known as the Denying Americans a Right to Know Act (DARK Act). Luckily, the bill, which has since passed the House, was blocked from a vote in the Senate. Additional legislation proposed by Senator Bill Bowman (R-ND) in 2002 would have allowed farmers in North Dakota the right to sue Monsanto if wheat was found to be contaminated with genetically modified crops. The discovery is likely to prompt similar legislation, if not litigation.
According to USDA officials and stakeholders, USDA currently has limited data on the extent and impact of unintended mixing of GE and non-GE crops. As a result, USDA is missing key information on the potential economic impacts of unintended mixing. In performing this study, GAO analyzed legislation, regulations, and agency policies and reports and interviewed agency officials and stakeholders, including representatives from the biotechnology and food industries and consumer, farm, environmental, and commodity groups to examine: (1) steps EPA, FDA, and USDA have taken to regulate GE crops; (2) the data USDA has on the extent and impact of unintended mixing of GE and non-GE crops, and what steps have been taken to prevent such mixing; and (3) the extent to which USDA, EPA, and FDA provide information to the public on GE crops. To address the shortcomings, GAO recommended (among other things), specifically related to points (2) and (3), that USDA set a timeline for updating its regulations and include farmers growing identity-preserved crops in its survey efforts to better understand the impacts of unintended mixing. USDA generally agreed with these recommendations.
Comments by Beyond Pesticides to USDA’s AC21 outline several actions USDA could take to advance an understanding of agricultural coexistence, including:
- USDA must level the playing field amongst stakeholders so that the burden of preventing contamination is no longer concentrated on organic and non-GE operations. In order to achieve true coexistence, we believe responsibility must be tied to ownership — those who patent, promote, and profit from GE products should be responsible for preventing contamination and covering damage in cases where prevention fails.
- USDA should establish a fair compensation proposal. The patent holder should be responsible for segregation and traceability, over the entirety of the life cycle of the crop. It should be held responsible for the economic and market harm caused by its products.
- USDA should more fully analyze environmental and economic implications of GE contamination and the implications of managing GE crops. These are also of critical importance to the ideas underpinning “coexistence” — how one system of agriculture can directly and indirectly impact the viability of the other.
Shifting the responsibility of contamination away from small-scale and organic farmers to the GE patent holder and GE farmers —a polluter pays principle— is an important first step in leveling the playing field and achieving the desired level of coexistence between growing operations. A system in which organic farmers are forced to expend resources to protect themselves from the choices of others, while potential trespassers are merely allowed to go about their business regardless of consequences is not equitable coexistence and is not a permanent solution. GAO findings support the need for more research on all aspects of GE crops, and calls on USDA to enhance oversight and better understand the impacts of the unintended mixing of GE crops with other crops.
For more information on the environmental hazards associated with GE technology, visit Beyond Pesticides’ Genetic Engineering webpage. The best way to avoid genetically engineered foods in the marketplace is to purchase foods that have the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Certified Organic Seal. Under organic certification standards, genetically modified organisms and their byproducts are prohibited. For many other reasons, organic products are the right choice for consumers.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.