It held five meetings, waited until after the election, gained consensus among all but one of its members, sent off a 61-page report to the Secretary of Agriculture and now is waiting for the reviews, which are starting to come in. Its consensus report envisions crop coexistence in a nation with a diverse agricultural base built on organic, conventional and genetically engineered (GE) crops with farmers free to make their own choices about what to do with their land. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture (AC21) came up with five recommendations aimed at a compromise that will help everyone get along, the most controversial of which is an insurance-based “compensation mechanism” that would come into play if economic losses were suffered by an organic crop from a GM or even conventional crop.  Reaction to the AC21 report split along predictable lines. In a statement, the American Farm Bureau Federation said it was pleased with AC21’s report to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack “to be used as guidance to enhance working relationships among farmers growing different types of crops, specifically biotech and non-biotech crops.” Farm Bureau’s Vice President Barry Bushue, who was a member of AC21, said the report’s recommendations “could benefit all of agriculture.” The environmental group Food & Water Watch does not like the insurance-based compensation mechanism. The AC21 recommendations “completely miss the mark by putting forth an insurance compensation mechanism that would be the financial burden of contamination on organic and non-GE farmers, while letting the patent holding biotechnology companies that created this technology avoid their responsibility,” said Wenonah Hauter, F&WW executive director. AC21’s recommendation calls for work on loss data and creation of one or more pilot programs to develop the compensation program. Options might exist for purchasing insurance to entering into joint coexistence agreements with neighbors. According to USDA, other AC21 recommendations include:

  • Spearheading and funding a broad-based, comprehensive education and outreach initiative on coexistence.
  • Working with all stakeholders to foster good crop stewardship and mitigate potential economic risks from unintended gene flow between crop varieties.
  • Funding research relevant to coexistence in American agriculture.
  • Working with seed suppliers to ensure a diverse and high quality commercial seed supply.

The only AC21 committee member who would not sign off on the consensus report was Isaura Andaluz, executive director of Albuquerque-based Cuatro Puertas (Four Doors). Andaluz objected to the onus being put on “non-GE farmers.” About half the report includes additional comments of AC21 members who signed on to the report, but many still expressed reservations. Laura L. Batcha, the Organic Trade Association’s policy chief, is disappointed there are no incentives for containment of GM crops recommended in the report. Another AC21 member, Charles M. Benbrook, chief scientist at The Organic Center in Enterprise, OR, said early on it was clear the only compensation method that would clear the committee was one based on the crop insurance model. Illinois farmer Leon Corzine said the AC21 “refutes the theory that there is a war in the countryside.”  “Any ‘war’ is created by organizations with headline grabbing sound bites,” he said. “I have two organic neighbors and, as a lifelong farmer, I see no such war.” Josephine Lewis, director of agricultural development for Davis, CA-based Arcadia Biosciences, and also said data reviewed by AC21 shows that “lack of co-existence is not a widespread problem and there are a growing number of tools to facilitate co-existence management.” Angela M. Olsen, senior advisor and associated general counsel for DuPont and Company and its Pioneer Hi-Bred, endorsed the AC21 report, but not the recommendation calling for collecting data from seed companies. “It remains unclear to me how this data would be collected, who would collect it, how it would be used, and what questions it would seek to answer,” Olsen wrote. “Nor have any facts come to light in our deliberations that would justify such an unprecedented national program.” Editor’s Note: Parts of a statement issued by USDA after this Food Safety News story was published is provided below: The AC21 report was developed in response to the Secretary’s request that this diverse committee examine what types of compensation mechanisms, if any, would be appropriate to address economic losses to farmers caused by unintended presence of genetically engineered materials, as well as how such mechanisms might work. The report also examines what steps should be taken by USDA to strengthen coexistence among different types of agricultural production systems. “I am very pleased to have received this report from the AC21, because the report is the culmination of a great deal of hard work and complex discussion and review,” said Vilsack. “I understand that required compromises to find common ground. We will carefully review the report and consider how best to move forward. USDA is proud to support all segments of agriculture and will continue to work to strengthen America’s rural communities.” The AC21 is a broad-based committee composed of 23 members from 16 States and the District of Columbia. The members represent the biotechnology industry, the organic food industry, farming communities, the seed industry, food manufacturers, State government, consumer and community development groups, the medical profession, and academic researchers.  The committee met five times since mid-2011 to address the Secretary’s charge. The report was endorsed by 22 out of 23 AC21 members. Secretary Vilsack designated his Senior Advisor, Brandon Willis, to lead a USDA team to receive and plan implementation of the report.