Can Organic Farming and GMOs Coexist?

In the fields of Iowa where I grew up, organic soy and corn does indeed exist alongside genetically modified (or “GMO”) varieties. But the policy allowing so-called “coexistence” of organic and GMO crops now in place in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is one-sided and precarious at best.

More than 90 percent of the soybeans and corn grown on U.S. soil are from GMO seeds, which are modified to withstand heavy applications of herbicides and pesticides. Among those pesticides is 2,4-D, which contains the same chemical used in Agent Orange.

The USDA is attempting to codify or put into law a lopsided set of rules that would define how organic and genetically modified organisms should co-exist in the unnatural theater of modern day agriculture. And the agency is actually proposing that organic growers pay for contamination done by the GMO patent holders!

Let me tell you a story of an organic farmer I know from Illinois who had a blossoming business growing and exporting certified organic soybeans. His fields are free of Roundup, 2,4-D, atrazine and his streams run pure. Milkweed flourishes along the roadsides near his fields, providing an oasis of habitat for Monarch butterflies within a sea of barren roadsides. He exported to Japan and the European Union year after year and was able to convert more land into certified organic production as a result. Because many countries do not allow GMO crops to cross their borders, companies in both places continuously sought out my friend’s bounty. His farm prospered.

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Because these countries are so adamant about not allowing GMO crops into their food chain, they conduct regular DNA testing for GMO presence. One day a container of his soybeans was tested and genetically engineered DNA was detected. The pollen from his neighbor’s fields of GMO soy had intermingled with his plants and now his shipment was deemed forbidden at no fault of his own.

The shipment was rejected and so were upcoming deliveries. He lost all value on the first container and he lost his customers and all hope of renewing those contracts in the future. He sold the entirety of that year’s crop as conventional. His current and future exports business had been dashed. That year he didn’t even break even. In your mind, who should pay the price for this contamination: The organic farmer, or the one growing GMOs nearby?

Back in 2003, the USDA established an Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture (called AC21) to examine the long-term impacts of biotechnology on the U.S. food and agriculture system. Their aim was to provide guidance to USDA on issues related to the application of GMOs used in “modern” agriculture.

Last year the AC21 members provided Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack with their final recommendations. But those recommendations don’t sufficiently address the needs of my friend in Illinois and farmers like him. In fact, the committee goes as far as to recommend that organic farmers purchase crop insurance if they want to be compensated for GMO contamination.

If these recommendations come to pass, organic farmers will have to spend even more money to grow organic food while giving the GMO patent holders a pass. In my mind, that’s like penalizing the victim and rewarding the perpetrator. Shouldn’t the responsibility of contamination be placed on those who own, promote, and profit from GMO products?

The USDA’s recommendations do not propose any mandatory measures to prevent contamination but they do suggest voluntary ones. My question is: How would voluntary measures be any different from what we have now? There should be mandatory best practices in place for GMO producers to keep their organic neighbors from bearing the brunt of their (largely) untested genetic roulette.

What can you do? If you don’t live in the Midwest but care about this issue, you can provide comments to the proposed coexistence policy language by March 4, 2014. The USDA is asking for input on more than a dozen questions under the topics of education, collaboration and outreach. The department wants input on coexistence practices, and specifically, how the department can support communication between farmers.


A version of this post first appeared at Organic Matters.

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  1. Friday, February 28th, 2014
    Answer: No, no, no, and no.