COEXISTENCE in crops has been and always will be a challenge, but members of a recent biotechnology advisory committee (AC) for the secretary of agriculture reported that farmers have found ways to make coexistence work and that more data are needed to determine the extent of -- or whether there is -- any problem.
The recently released report, "Enhancing Coexistence: A Report of the AC21 to the Secretary of Agriculture," was born out of a Supreme Court ruling over biotech alfalfa and the alleged concerns with farmers who grow different types of crops.
Coexistence refers to the concurrent cultivation of conventional, organic, identity-preserved or genetically modified crops consistent with underlying consumer preferences and farmer choices, according to the report.
Cathy Enbright, executive vice president of food and agriculture for the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), noted that the issue of coexistence remains controversial, but sometimes that's because of generated controversy.
"In the countryside, farmers are getting along in general, although you do have some instances of issues. The AC21 process allowed for varying voices to weigh in on this issue," she said.
The AC21 report was developed in response to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's request that a diverse committee examine which types of compensation mechanisms, if any, would be appropriate to address economic losses to farmers caused by the unintended presence of genetically modified materials, as well as how such mechanisms might work.
The report also examines what steps the U.S. Department of Agriculture should take to strengthen coexistence among different types of agricultural production systems.
Dr. Adrianne Massey, a member of the biotech committee and managing director of science and regulatory affairs for food and agriculture at BIO, said not being able to establish the extent of any coexistence problem makes it difficult to solve the problem -- a point that is woven throughout the AC report.
The report calls for research in a range of areas that are integral to understanding the current state of coexistence and gene flow management, as well as the development of improved tools and practices to manage coexistence in the future.
It also recommends that USDA provide a framework for establishing a system of compensation for actual economic losses when farmers intend to grow identity-preserved products -- if the agriculture secretary determines that there are adequate loss data to justify such a step.
Leon Corzine, a member of the committee and a farmer from Illinois who has grown specialty and seed crops alongside biotech varieties, noted that the discussion really confirmed how coexistence is working.
"We have seen dramatic growth of biotechnology on the farm and also in the organic sector as well. Both sectors -- as well as growing in added-value opportunities -- show that coexistence is working, which led our discussion to enhancing coexistence," Corzine said.
Having farmers participate in the discussion helped disseminate this point as well as make sure the committee didn't try to find a solution by going to look for a problem, he added.
The question was raised as to whether a crop insurance program could protect growers from significant economic harm due to the unintended presence of genetically modified material. However, without any means to determine economic losses, it would be difficult to establish a crop insurance model.
Corzine added that none of the farmers who testified during the process sought a compensation mechanism. "If you remove all the risks, you also could remove all the premium for those products," he explained.
AC21 recommended that USDA educate farmers and others in the food and feed production chain about coexistence and the roles they play -- particularly with regard to stewardship, contracting and attention to gene flow -- in making it work. In addition, USDA should provide farmers with tools and incentives to promote coexistence through its farm programs and coordination with other entities.
Corzine noted that coexistence is not a major issue but is an important issue and requires heightened awareness, especially as new technologies and opportunities for identity-preservation products emerge.
Coming as no surprise given such complicated and complex issues, not all members of the AC agreed to all of the recommendations, but the report provides a rationale for other concerns members identified.
A copy of the report is available at www.usda.gov/documents/ac21_report-enhancing-coexistence.pdf.