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GM and Organic Co-Existence: Why We Really Just Can't Get Along

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Originally published on Civil Eats

Last Friday, the USDA announced the partial deregulation of genetically modified sugar beets, defying a court order to complete an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in advance of a decision. This move follows on the heels of the full deregulation late last month of genetically modified (GM) alfalfa, the fourth most common row crop in the United States, which is most often used as feed for cattle.

If you eat beef, or take milk and sugar in your coffee (and even if you don't), here is why you should care: The move could put organic foods at risk for contamination and make it more expensive.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has attempted to stave off further litigation and quell the mounting antagonism between farmers growing GM seed and organic farmers by proposing "co-existence" between the two.

Part of Vilsack's plan for co-existence includes using buffers between organic and GM fields and even placing geographic restrictions on the growth of GM seeds. This is the first time such a discussion had been broached by the USDA. New York University professor and food movement leader Marion Nestle called the move a "breakthrough," and we also ran an op-ed pushing for co-existence as the lesser of two evils here on Civil Eats.

But Vilsack's co-existence plan seemed to put President Obama's pro-business agenda at risk. In fact, David Axelrod put the kibosh on the idea with a bad pun, encouraging "everyone to 'plow forward' on a plan for genetically produced alfalfa," according to Maureen Dowd.

Monsanto, the company behind 95 percent of GM sugarbeet seed and all of the GM alfalfa seed, had fought against the deal behind closed doors.

Worries were expressed about our biotech credibility abroad should we discuss any fallibility at home. But in a nod toward co-existence, Monsanto spokesman Tom Helscher told the AP on Monday, "Since the advent of biotech crops, both biotech and organic production have flourished. We have no reason to think that will not continue to be the case." What Monsanto execs don't mention publicly is that co-existence is not possible, and as patent holders to the gene traits in their GM seeds, they have the right to sue farmers whose fields become contaminated by these traits.

"Certainly, on a commercial-scale crop, over time, you are going to get contamination," said Doug Gurian-Sherman, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "The provisions [in the EIS] will certainly reduce contamination, and they may delay it to some extent, but they're not going to prevent it."

Aside from the transfer of genetic material through pollen, there are many other ways in which it has proven impossible to contain the risk of contamination. And unfortunately, there are plenty of real examples in which contamination has already happened.

There are well-documented cases with papaya in Hawaii, corn in Mexico, canola most recently in North Dakota, and creeping bentgrass, which pollinated grasses 13 miles away in Oregon. A test plot of a GM rice was even responsible for contaminating long grain varieties in five states in 2006, five years after Bayer CropScience had abandoned trials of its LL601 rice, costing the industry $2 billion.

In 1999, a corn variety called StarLink-which was not approved for human consumption-contaminated half of the Iowa corn harvest. Whether batches of corn meant for animal consumption were mixed with corn for human consumption on accident or through cross-pollination-we will never know exactly what happened. What we do know is that our current regulatory process has significant-in many cases, insurmountable-problems, and the concept of co-existence is merely a smoke screen that will create more of the same.

This is why deregulation has huge implications for organic farmers as well as consumers. The USDA does not test for contamination after deregulating a biotech crop. In the StarLink case, it was a non-profit group that found traces of the corn in taco shells. This means that the impetus will be on organic farmers to test their own crops, further increasing food prices. Worse, organic food could become more limited in availability if contamination becomes a widespread issue.

"Today, there are many committed consumers who want to know their farmer, feed their families wholesome dairy products, and be assured that their food isn't contaminated by GMOs," said Albert Straus, an organic dairy farmer from California who has spoken out against GM alfalfa. "If the organic feed supply for dairy cattle is contaminated with GMOs, farmers will no longer be able to offer truly organic milk to consumers, and everything we have worked to build will be compromised." Straus Family Creamery has been voluntarily testing its feed for GMOs since 2006, and carries the Non-GMO Project Seal on its label.

In addition, organic farmers fear economic loses in export markets-places like the European Union and Japan, where products containing traces of GM foods are consistently rejected. In addition to risks in the field, it is not uncommon for organic crops to be transported in rail cars, on boats and in truck beds where GM or conventional crops have also been transported. This means that a crop that has been tested by the farmer can still be contaminated later. With no protections in place, the organic farmer bears the majority of the risk.

The reason Japanese and EU consumers are driving the purity tests on crops coming from America is simple: When GM foods are sold in places like the EU or Japan, they are labeled as such. And this really is the critical issue. American consumers want to know what they are eating, but the industry doesn't want to be forthcoming because letting the market decide would mean resistance to GM foods.

"We don't challenge consumers on whether they want a red car or a blue car," said Gurian-Sherman. "But when it comes to choosing what they want to eat, the people that are supporting this technology seem to be greatly offended that the market in Europe and other places is doing what markets are suppose to do."

Letting the market decide would also mean more support for organics, which would force the USDA to protect that market-and thus our food supply-more conscientiously. Therefore, pushing for transparent labeling on food containing GMOs could be the first step in protecting our food supply from genetic contamination.

This will not be the last battle fought to preserve an agricultural product from contamination. In fact, any day now the FDA will be issuing a ruling about the first genetically altered animal-the GM salmon.

Meanwhile, here are a few things you can do to defend organic against the threat of GM food.

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