Coexistence takes conversation

As described briefly in my last post, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is trying to find a regulatory solution to the plague of lawsuits regarding coexistence of biotech and organic. While there are some positive aspects to the proposed partial deregulation, there are better ways to ensure that all farmers get to grow what they want.

First, there already exists case law to solve problems between individual farmers. The two current big lawsuits (sugar beets,alfalfa) aren’t about individual farmers, though, they are carefully orchestrated efforts by special interest groups. Anyway, as I understand it, if two neighboring farmers can’t work out things on their own, the case law is clear. Hopefully if I have it wrong someone with relevant expertise will stop by and comment.

When things move from one person’s land to another person’s land, that is trespassing. Every person has a responsibility to keep their things to themselves, using reasonable methods to control their things. Every person also has a responsibility to protect their things from harm, using reasonable methods to protect anything that might be harmed by outside forces (like things from your neighbor moving into the area).

You thought your neighbor was difficult!

“Hero car” by Rasmin via Flickr.

Let’s consider an example far, far from agriculture. Let’s say that John is a stunt man that specializes in intense fiery scenes. He has developed a company that does all kinds of neat stunts on his multi acre property, things like flying cars on fire. Next door, Jane has her own company. She makes speciality blanks for firearms, also for the movie industry. She has all sorts of interesting blanks, including red and green tracers that can really light up a scene.

One day, John’s fire gets a little out of control. Some tongues of flame leap over the property line and set a shed on Jane’s property on fire. The shed explodes, causing damage to both Jane’s and John’s property. They end up in court, where Jane is suing for the price of a new shed and to replace all the gunpower stored in there.

Who was at fault? Obviously, John’s fire trespassed onto Jane’s land so he should be held liable. However, perhaps Jane didn’t safeguard her gunpowder shed adequately . The judge would consider the reasonable precautions that should have been taken by John to control the fire and by Jane to protect her gunpowder, and look at what precautions were actually taken, if any. If it turns out that John took every reasonable precaution and Jane didn’t, then the judge would rule that John only owes a portion of the cost of the shed and gunpowder. If it turns out that Jane took every reasonable precaution and John was lax, then the judge would rule that John owes Jane for the full cost of the shed and the gunpowder inside.

The thing is, there are two people involved here. Neither John nor Jane can on their own 100% prevent any trespass. If both of them take reasonable precautions, though, they can both avoid trespass and avoid going to court. What they should have done way before the incident is take time to discuss precautions.

Coexistence takes conversation

Farm fence via Free Foto.

To get back to farming, just like John and Jane, two neighboring farmers must both take reasonable precautions to prevent trespass of their property (including pollen and chemicals) and take reasonable precautions to prevent trespass onto their property, especially if something on their property could be damaged by trespass. Obviously, when it comes to pollen, a fence isn’t going to cut it. There are many things that farmers can do cooperatively to avoid getting to that courtroom that don’t require the USDA to tell them where, when, and what they can plant.

The exact methods that would make coexistence of organic and biotech (and non-biotech conventional) lawsuit free will vary by crop and location. Methods that are needed for one crop are unnecessary for others. Methods that work in one situation/location won’t work in others. Neighbors have to get together and discuss how to solve the problem of coexistence creatively. They have to enter into the conversation knowing that any trespass will harm both of them. They have to earnestly work together to find mutual solutions.Will this eliminate lawsuits? Of course not. But it would definitely help in the majority of situations.

Before I go any further, I should mention that farmers are already taking the time to have conversations about coexistence. Many are already finding creative solutions that allow both to farm in the ways they wish and to be profitable. Here’s one example by Pamela Ronald:

Raoul discusses another example in our book Tomorrow’s Table. On his organic farm, they were growing beautiful sunflowers to sell for bouquets at the farmers market. Unfortunately, the pollen from the organic crop was contaminating fields of conventional sunflowers that were being grown for seed. The pollen flow from the organic crop rendered the seed crop impure and therefor reduced the value of the seed crop.

This is America so you would expect that the conventional farmer would sue the organic farmer. But no! The farmers talked to each other and came up with a solution. The conventional growers gave the organic grower some sterile sunflower seeds. Problem solved. The organic growers here in the Valley now grow sterile sunflowers for their bouquets.

What the USDA can do to help

Instead of adding one-size-fits-all regulations that restrict farmers’ ability to make choices, the USDA can encourage more of these conversations to take place. In many cases, farmers can find their own solutions, as the sunflower farmers above did. But sometimes situations can be complicated and could use the expertise of an agronomist. The USDA should increase funding for agricultural extension and make sure to hire extension agents who would be able to mediate discussions about coexistence and provide ideas on how to reduce trespass.

There are so many ways to reduce pollen flow, some easy, some difficult. Distance is pretty easy; one or both neighbors could simply grow a different crop as a buffer. Perhaps, in some situations, it would be appropriate for a biotech farmer to grow their refuge along their property line with an organic neighbor. Perhaps the border between the farms could be set aside as wildlife habitat under CRP. A little more difficult is using time as the barrier, offsetting planting dates so that one crop will have finished shedding pollen before the neighbor’s plants become receptive to pollen. The timing has to be exactly right, which could be where an extension agent would come in handy.

In the case of alfalfa, which after all is what started this whole conversation about coexistence, farmers can harvest their alfalfa before the flowers become receptive to pollen. Penn State has a great resource page about when to harvest alfalfa. Of course, that’s not an option for farmers growing alfalfa for seed, but keeping seed pure can be pretty complex even when biotech isn’t involved, already requiring special distances and barriers to stray pollen.

The USDA should focus on sound science and use the expertise of agronomists to help encourage coexistence. And the organic industry groups need to join as helpful forces, cooperating with farmers and extension agents to help find solutions to coexistence in specific situations. Blanket regulations can be useful in some situations, but not here. I hope that Secretary Vilsack and others working on coexistence come to realize that.

Anastasia is a Board Member of Biology Fortified, Inc. and the Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. She has a PhD in genetics with a minor in sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Her favorite produce is artichokes! Learn more about Anastasia at about.me. Disclaimer: Anastasia's words are her own and views expressed do not necessarily represent the views of her employer(s). She is not paid to blog or conduct any social media activities. Any mention of a specific company or product does not indicate endorsement of that company or product.


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36 comments to Coexistence takes conversation

  • Sam C

    The two current big lawsuits (sugar beets,alfalfa) aren’t about individual farmers, though, they are carefully orchestrated efforts by industry groups.

    It appears you lost your train of logic in this sentence. You begin it by stating What the lawsuits are (not) about, but don’t answer that and instead point to Who is involved. This is not a small error, in that it clouds the rest of the case you attempt to make.

    I also question the use of the term “industry groups,” or am confused by what you mean in using this term. I do not view Sierra Club or Center for Food Safety as organic industry groups. They are civil society and/or environmental organizations. In addition, from looking at the other plaintiffs, it would appear to be some “industry” (two seed companies. One conventional – alfala case. And one organic – in beet case) not “industry groups”. As to the other plaintiff I see one nonprofit that is engaged in education and research in organic seed, so perhaps they could be called an industry group. But according to materials I read on their site and requested they don’t get funding from organic seed industry, and their last annual report shows that the vast majority of their funding is public rural business development grants and a few smaller research grants.

    Regardless of your perception of what an “industry group” is (and I am interested in hearing) the sentence places your focus on “them” and never answers What this is about. You think, “it’s about those people” is how that reads to me, and that should cause your readers to have a pinch of skepticism for what follows.

    What the two lawsuits are about is not coexistence, or contamination between two neighbors, which indeed two farmers could likely settle given a long history of dating back to British common law on “good neighbor” principles, but rather they are about if the USDA followed the National Environmental Policy Act, the law they are required to follow. The resulting decision by both judges requires USDA-APHIS to examine impacts such as contamination, and attempt to engage (up to the limits of its authority) in solutions to avoid it, including potential restrictions (alfalfa), or best practices (including breeding of the GE traits into female parent lines to mitigate gene flow in seed production on the beets). There are limits, for example APHIS cannot create “compensation payments” in this case, as that is beyond their authority, and regardless NEPA cases are about damage that cannot be corrected by financial payments. The judges rulings do not require APHIS to set a course for coexistence.

    So your conclusions on “What the USDA Can Do” are not really as pertinent as “what the USDA is required by law to do.”

    I do like your wish that there was more funding for extension, and would add funding to test and monitor contamination to determine if this is only low-level presence or if there is indeed serious contamination occurring. It would appear that the actual reporting on contamination events is not publicly available as private seed companies and food companies are not willing to reveal such information for fear their customers will not purchase their products.

    • Ok, “industry groups” wasn’t the proper term. I did write this in a bit of a hurry, having 50 papers to grade by tomorrow and each one takes 5-10 minutes. A better term would be non-profits or NGOs or special interest groups. I’ve edited the post to correct my error and I do apologize because it seems to have gotten us started on the wrong foot.

      The groups bringing the suits may not be financially connected to the organic industry but they do have a clear agenda against conventional farming and biotechnology in particular. They are using coexistence as an excuse to bring their agendas into court. They’re pushing this idea that all the poor little organic farmers will be utterly destroyed if biotech sugar beets or alfalfa are grown even though any farmer worth his or her farm knows that unless the beets or alfalfa are grown for seed there isn’t a problem with cross pollination. The suits aren’t about coexistence, that’s clear, even though that’s what they want their donors to think. So, I didn’t loose my train of thought. “Though” was used as a transition word.

      As for what the USDA should or should not have done, I have actually written extensively about the sugar beet situation and the alfalfa situation is, as far as I know, similar. See No risk assessment for sugar beets? for the full post. Long story short, the USDA has to do an EA or Environmental Assessment no matter what. If the biotech trait is similar to previous crops (it is, there are already multiple glyphosate resistant crops on the market) and there aren’t any particular risks that require further investigation, then they’re done. If the trait is novel or there are specific risks uncovered by the EA then the USDA also has to do an EIS or Environmental Impact Statement. In the case of sugar beets, the USDA did an EA and decided an EIS was not necessary. I agree. An EIS is time consuming and presumably also expensive at least in man hours. The two step assessment process is a good way to avoid unnecessary government expense but also ensure that things that need that extra assessment receive it. The glyphosate resistant sugar beets did not warrant an EIS. The USDA followed the law.

      As for how much contamination is actually happening – maybe ask the Non-GMO project. They are doing third party testing so if there is widespread contamination, they’d know. If I had to guess, I’d say it probably varies greatly by location. How frequently are there biotech and non-biotech (specifically organic or ones going for some sort of non-GMO label) plants of the same species grown within pollination distance? Are the farmers growing the non-biotech crops using methods to protect their crops from unwanted pollen? If they’re organic certified then they have to have some measures in place in order to get certification. They already have to have borders and I’d imagine most organic farmers know what their neighbors are growing and do whatever they need to do to grow a non-biotech crop. Surely there are situations where there has been pollination that caused a farmer to not be able to get their third party non-GMO certification, but I bet they’re relatively rare. And when it does happen they can use the courts to be compensated and hopefully the next year they’ll take more precautions and so will their neighbor.

      I disagree that there should be funding for testing of “contamination”. I don’t see what value there would be in that. One real consequence would be that some organic farmers could be harmed financially if people found out that there was .1% or whatever biotech seed in their product.

  • Scott Smith

    Coexistence between GMO and everything else can only occur if GMO is quarantined. I’m thinking 500 foot tall perimeter walls to prevent air-born GM pollen egress. I’m also thinking a containment ditch to capture all the chemical-laden run-off which then must be remediated on-site. All costs to be borne by the GM proponent in fairness and consideration for the rest of the neighborhood and earth.

    • Scott, if you had greater understanding of biology then you’d know there are far more reasonable ways to keep unwanted pollen from pollinating a plant. If you had a greater understanding of biology you’d also know that biotechnology and pesticides are not one and the same. There are two main traits on the market, one reduces the amount of insecticides needed and the other encourages farmers to switch from more to less toxic herbicides. Other traits that have been deregulated include virus resistance which doesn’t have anything to do with pesticides at all. You might also want to consider that there are problems associated with unwanted pollen even when biotech traits aren’t involved, such as the example of sunflowers in this post. In the case of the sunflowers, it was the organic pollen doing the damage. Do you think every field should have a 500 foot wall around it? If so, they should bear the cost of the wall, don’t you think?

    • One has to consider the impact a 500ft wall next to your organic field would have – I’m gonna guess that lack of sunlight is probably a bigger impact on non-GM farmers than vanishingly small cross pollination events.

      “Well bob, our crop is 100% GM free, unfortunately we only yielded 10% of our normal yield because the wall we asked our neighbours to build reduced photosynthetic capacity of our crops to next to nothing – we should have figured that we’re surrounded by conventional farms and that 500ft tall walls completely surrounding our farm is a bad idea. Oh well, perhaps next year we can grow organic shrooms instead – our withered pathetic crop should provide enough feed for them”

      • I could market that. “New, low radiation crops! Conventional crops are grown in high levels of a form of radiation to jack up their size. That doesn’t sound healthy! That radiation will fade the color of something left out in it, just like bleach, and you wouldn’t drink bleach would you? This radiation can damage your DNA, and even give you cancer if you stay in it, so do you really want to be eating something grown in it? Heck no you don’t! Of course, Big Agra stands to lose too much without using their cancer causing radiation (although I’m going to simultaneously claim that it doesn’t actually work), so they won’t tell you the truth. But ours are grown without such questionable practices, in a safe, low radiation environment. Low Radiation crops…demand them, and demand fire breathing Godzilla-crops grown in that dangerous radiation carry warning labels.”

  • Sterile (pollenless) sunflower seeds are not the answer for a growing majority of organic growers, particularly those groups growing seed for sale. It might have worked in that case but it will not work in all cases.

    I can clearly see which side is pushing this new “co-existence” scam.

    • Yes, of course you are right – the idea that people with differing ideas and interests with equal right to those interests must find a way to co-exist is a complete scam. We need more people like you who will say quite clearly:

      I can promise you, there is an army of people like me, willing to do whatever legally possible to keep “co-existence” from ever being accepted as the “status quo”.

      Quite frankly, because you believe that your interests are superior to everyone else’s you are part of the problem.

  • Eric Baumholder

    This is the first time in history when consumers have decided they will tell farmers how to farm.

    Exactly as you’d suspect, several things have occurred as a result: Widespread consumer ignorance of farming, resulting in unreasonable demands; and the emergence of industry groups ready, willing, able, and experienced in the arts of exploiting popular ignorance for financial or political ends.

    Given these two naturally obvious sequelae, there is one additional, obvious result: opposing science-based regulatory decisions, because that process eschews — rightly so — the intellectually vacuous value of exacerbating ignorance and appeasing it.

    • Clem Weidenbenner

      Eric:

      This is the first time in history when consumers have decided they will tell farmers how to farm.

      Hardly… Kashrut: Jewish Dietary Laws have been around for several milenia. And pork is not the only forbidden food… most insects on fruits and vegetables will render them not Kosher. For more detail have a look here:

      http://www.jewfaq.org/kashrut.htm

  • Jason

    It might be interesting to look up the Brassica Seed Production District in Washington. In this situation, farmers WANT regulation by the state government.

    • Sam C

      This is a great example Jason. Here is link to legislation.

      There is a similar one in Oregon with recent decision to ban planting of canola to preserve the conventional seed industry in the Willamette Valley. It’s interesting, some of the seed companies protesting agains constraints on RR sugarbeets actually led the petition and lobbying efforts to get the Oregon Department of Ag to ban planting of biofuel canola out of risk of genetic contamination. These companies liked the principle of protecting their crops from genetic contamination -no coexistence at all, just an outright ban on canola. They told farmers what they can and cannot plant. So there is precedent. I read the Mandarin seedless issue described on here in another post. Obviously in some cases the government does come in to intervene. This is the debate – what are the limits of government regulatory authority? Should the govt have not interceded in Oregon on behalf of conventional seed industry over the “rights” of those who want to grow biofuel crops?

      • Sam C

        So much of this relates to property rights issues, which we in rural communities are always debating. In property rights, courts and regulatory agencies try to define principles that impact or constrain the rights of others. It is clear that while some argue for no limitations on property rights, the courts have long held (going back to English common law) that they have a responsibility to interfere when one owner’s use of property violates an others and creates harm (see Eric Freygole, “On Private Property” for a great history on this). In the last century in the US agencies and courts have shifted thinking back and forth over what constitutes an actionable harm to others, and while “harm” can be objective (loss of income, reputation, etc) it is fairly obvious to a historical observer that there is great cultural subjectivity in harm.

        In other words, this debate is as much about law as it is about agricultural methodology. And as much about cultural attitudes(as a commentator below, Eric, pointed out with a bit of hyperbole and bitterness) as it is about law. Coexistence must be science-based, but also based in legal and regulatory frameworks, and social constructs. In these overlapping arenas there is bound to be loss of translation, complexity, and the need for careful analysis. It is my read, that the courts felt the analysis by the USDA has been incomplete, and that if the plaintiffs in these cases would have asked for intervention in early deregulations (corn, canola, soy, cotton) they would have likely ordered a full EIS on those as well.

      • I think there’s a pretty big difference between a fairly small area deciding on a law that works for that area vs a nation wide law.

        I actually mentioned the canola ban in my post Sugar beet biology.

        Another option that was available to Judge White was to just prohibit GM beet seeds from being grown in Willamette Valley. There’s already a ban in all of Oregon against growing any canola (GM or not) because of concerns that the canola will pollinate other brassica crops grown for seed, like broccoli, although that concern might not be warranted, according to farmer Dean Freeborn in Farmer pushes for relaxation on canola rules. This could be used as precedent to justify a ban on GM sugar beet seed production in Willamette Valley, or even in all of Oregon.

  • Sam C

    You write “In the case of sugar beets, the USDA did an EA and decided an EIS was not necessary. I agree. An EIS is time consuming and presumably also expensive at least in man hours. The two step assessment process is a good way to avoid unnecessary government expense but also ensure that things that need that extra assessment receive it. The glyphosate resistant sugar beets did not warrant an EIS. The USDA followed the law.”

    I’m not sure what level of legal experience you have, but the Supreme Court heard the alfalfa case – again a RR case – and they did not overturn the lower courts (Federal and Circuit) rulings that an EIS was necessary. So, “the law” in the form of both a federal act and three federal courts – has a different opinion than you on this. I would be the first one to say that not all of our laws or courts are rational, logically, or practical – but your claim of the USDA following the law is quite incorrect. That is fact, not opinion.

    I’m sorry I have triggered some defense mechanism here. I was not trying to, but simply pointing out what I saw as a flaw in your argument. I think you might have been able to get to a similar point without making the leap from What to Who, and similarly without focussing on Should over Must. I meant it as observation and input into building a case based on logical conclusions and fact, not an insult, but from the tone of your response I fear I hit a sore spot (I certainly understand that if one is a perfectionist it is difficult to hear constructive criticism). As for busy, yes, I imagine you are. I imagine most of us on here are, but I do empathize with the particular strain of grading papers (been there).

    On contamination testing – well – if you are pro-science than you would want to have baseline data. What is the current rate of contamination of non-GE seed stock, foundation seed, breeding populations? Without baseline data in 2011, how can we have a conversation about this in 2012 – or 2015? I fully believe in coexistence, but not without data. “Sound science” the mantra we all call for, requires it. It would appear that the NonGMO Project (strange name, as in reading their site they later say that their products may contain some GMOs) does not share data of their products. Too bad, that would be a great baseline source as it appears they are testing at multiple points along the chain of production.

    • I don’t have any experience in law, as I stated near the beginning of this post and I invited anyone who had legal expertise to join in and correct me (please). I’m not a perfectionist (ok, maybe a little) and you didn’t hit a sore spot, I just have a really straightforward way of writing. I enter every discussion with a positive outlook with the goal of learning and expanding my knowledge and worldview and I assume others are the same way unless they show otherwise (such as Mr. Smith and Mr. Bishop there).

      As I understand it, the USDA followed the regulations it was required to follow; they followed the law. That the court cases then required an EIS doesn’t change the fact that the USDA did the right thing based on the regulations. I don’t know if the court cases have a permanent effect to change the regulations so now USDA has to do an EIS in addition to an EA now in every deregulation application. I just don’t know how that works. If you know, please let me know. Even if the cases changed things, that doesn’t change what happened in the past – past tense, the USDA did the right thing according to the rules they had at the time. I’m not sure how this is a leap, but if you’d explain further, I’d appreciate it. I don’t like to be wrong twice if I have the opportunity to learn.

      I haven’t read every opinion or other court document in the sugar beet and alfalfa sagas but it was really clear to me that the judge working on the sugar beet case has been bamboozled on biology. I provide some examples in the post I linked to before. I grudgingly understand that lawsuits are a major way that people deal with grievances in the US but how does it make any sense for a judge to make decisions that require a background in plant biology at a minimum. It would make just about as much sense to put me up on that judge’s bench.

      As for contamination levels, there’s one thing that you might be forgetting. In order to be certified, seed has to meet certain standards of genetic purity. If you’re growing for seed, whether foundation, breeding stock, sale, whatever, you’ll rogue out individuals that don’t look like the others. This is because the odd one out may have been pollinated by another outside pollen source. If you had variety x and it got pollenated with variety y no matter whether it had a transgene or not, you’d likely notice the difference when you planted it.

      In addition, different levels of certification require different isolation distances from unwanted pollen sources (here’s the standard for alfalfa seed in Oregon). Mechanisms for maintaining genetic purity of varieties exist aplenty as any seed producer or breeder would tell you. If they don’t do a good job of isolating their plants then they might ruin their breeding program or be unable to sell the seed.

      I don’t know if certifiers or producers are also testing for known transgenes but it would certainly make sense for them to in some cases. For example, if a seed producer has two identical or near identical lines except one has a transgene and the other does not, then it is entirely possible that the two could cross pollinate, have seed mixed, or otherwise comingle with the comingling going undetected (since the resulting plants would be genetically similar they’d look the same as the ones you want). I’ve heard that this has happened for refuge seed where a company sells two near identical lines with one having the Bt trait and the other without but the Bt trait somehow gets into the line that is supposed to not have it. In these sorts of cases testing would be a good idea, well, especially in the case of refuges because they’re required to not have the transgene.

      If someone wanted to check for low-level presence, though, that’d be fine, more info the better, someone should submit a grant proposal. Some work of this nature was done for maize in Mexico with mixed results. A review of the different studies = Gene flow from transgenic maize to landraces in Mexico: An analysis. The authors found that testing that had been done could be considered inadequate, but overall say that there is evidence for low level presence.

      There is one thing I disagree with in their paper that might be relevant to this conversation. They argue that once a transgene is in a population you can’t get it out. I completely disagree. If there is low level presence, one would just have to take DNA samples of pre-flowering plants and do PCR to detect the gene. Rough out plants with the gene and leave the ones without it. Cross those plants and that’ll be your transgene free population. Of course, you can’t get rid of all the other genes that come from outside the population but that’d happen whether there was a transgene or not, as I describe in Those naughty plants!

      I say all of this and for all I know you’re a PhD breeder and I’m talking to you like you don’t know anything about breeding. If so, I’m really sorry, I just don’t know what your background is.

  • Loren E

    Hey Scott,
    Under what law is it acceptable to demand the quarantine of GM crops? As has been stated many times the inserted genes and the varieties that contain them have been
    deregualted by the USDA. You may not like the USDA, its protocols or the companies that market GM, but they are operating within the law. If you don’t demand the quarantine of ALL other crops bordering an organic farm, then you can’t demand it just because you don’t like a particular gene. If I were a non-organic grower, do I get to file suit if I find his pollen on my land? And can we then make organic growers responsible for pathogens, insects and weeds that invade an adjacent property from his field? Where does this end?

  • Yes Karl, that’s it, kick that anger into gear and prove a point…..

    I don’t think I’m better than anyone, what I do however think is that you can’t see the forrest for your own rose colored glasses.

    As I recall it, it wasn’t so long ago your side was on the wining team, suing farmers and seed cleaners, but when the table turns all you can do is cry about it.

    • What a strange thing to say. Your opinion is clearly “my way only” based on your comment here and your blog post Karl linked to. You’re the one saying that it’s a scam to say that farmers of different types can coexist. What a horrible thing to say. Karl’s not crying, just responding with sarcasm to your bitterness.

      How about we talk about the reality that exists out there? Surely there are ways that farmers with different goals can Where an organic bouquet sunflower farmer is next to a farmer growing sunflowers for seed. Where seedless mandarin orange farmers are next to beekeepers. Where an organic dairy growing organic alfalfa is next to a conventional dairy growing biotech alfalfa. I was clear in this post in saying that each situation will need a different solution, requiring creativity and cooperation. Your bitterness adds nothing to the conversation.

  • Oh, and by the way, Karl, my favorite part of your reply was this:

    Quite frankly, because you believe that your interests are superior to everyone else’s you are part of the problem.

    How very Hitleresque of you my friend. At least I stated my case that where possible I would use the law as opposed to simply saying that I am part of the problem.

    And what is the problem anyhow? That somebody else has a say in things and is willing to use the law to prevent you or anyone else in whatever way possible from breaking down the 10,000 year old system of agriculture that has worked quite well for the whole world until someone in a lab decided they could improve upon it?

  • Perhaps it does not Anastasia, at least from your point of view, but the discussion of genetic modification and cross contamination from GMO’s into organic, op, or heirloom germplasm is unacceptable to me in any way.

    • What do you think about the problematic cross contamination that can occur in so many other situations that have nothing to do with transgenes? How is the situation so categorically different since transgenes (or maybe cisgenes) are involved? You have a blog post called The Enochian Key: The why’s and hows of creating a landrace that shows you know about breeding. You know that if you want to have two different heirloom varieties with distinct characteristics that you have to let them pollinate amongst themselves not with each other. Two heirlooms grown for seed need to be separated or the resulting seed won’t breed true. You’re already doing this- and your methods will keep transgenes out of an heirloom just as effectively as they keep the other heirloom pollen out. I honestly don’t understand how adding transgenes to the equation makes things any different.

      You are saying that your interests, or at least the interests of the farmers who don’t want to use transgenes, are more important than the interests of farmers who do want to use them, even though you are fully capable of doing what you need to do to keep outside pollen out. It sounds like instead of trying to find ways to coexist with neighbors who want to use different methods you just want to sue them. Why? Doesn’t your neighbor have just as much a right to grow what she wishes as you do, especially if you communicate in advance of planting as I suggest in this post to make sure both of you can do what you need to do successfully?

  • You are right on all of the above, and I never said I wanted to sue neighbors, as I wrote on my blog I don’t blame the farmers, I blame the transnational corporations pushing bad science. In terms of legal actions I’m talking about informing people as well as networking with people, including those special interest groups such as the OSA. I love my neighbors and think higher of them than to sue them, but instead wish to inform them, luckily for me they have respect for me as well and have been kind enough and understaning enough not to use transgenic crops.

    • I apologize for mistaking what you meant by legal actions.

      Let’s say we throw out everything ever done by big corporations, all the varieties they ever released, all the biotech traits, every scrap of research.

      That leaves publicly funded research and biotech traits developed by public funding, for example virus resistant papaya. There’s no potential for profiteering to overtake science, no motivation to hide data for the sake of profits. Now what? I ask because anti-biotech sentiment often has a lot to do with anti-corporation sentiment, which I can sort of sympathize with.

      The thing is, the science isn’t contested. Other than a few people doing bad research or bad statistics funded by explicitly anti-biotech groups (like this, for example) the independent research shows the process of genetic engineering to be safe.

      Now, that doesn’t mean that every possible biotech trait is safe or that every possible biotech trait is a good idea. For example, while I recognize the safety of the process that developed glyphosate resistance, and I’ll argue that farmers should have the right to use this trait, I don’t think it’s a good idea. I’d far prefer for weeds to be controlled though non-chemical methods. It’s not that glyphosate is dangerous per se but that I think we need to cut inputs dramatically, including pesticides, in order to make farming more sustainable. In addition, weeds can provide habitat which might be a worthy tradeoff for some yield reduction.

      We can talk about the value of specific traits. We can even talk about the need to decentralize agriculture and take some power away from transnationals. That makes sense. But I have a feeling that’s not going to cut it. I’d be interested to hear more specifically why you have a problem with biotech, especially if the corporate control aspect is removed from the equation.

      You didn’t answer my question about the rights of farmers, even if they are your neighbors, to grow something else you might not like. I’m interested to hear what you have to say about that.

  • Anastasia,

    In regards to the rights of farmers ans soverign land, I have no say over what they may or may not grow exept by way of what is allowed legally and what can be disussed amongst each other. If I don’t like it, too bad really, if they don’t like what I grow, that’s to bad too. My point really had little to do with such things, I’m a pretty staunch Libertarian if that tells you anything.

    In the case of cross pollination because of such an event, I have to rely on my eyes to discard transgenic traits from my seed crops and I dually have to wory about organizations such as Monsanto looking at me as a criminal because a neighbors crop crossed with mine, even though their pollen infected my crop and gave my crops traits I do not want or desire. Needless to say, this is a hastle I don’t/shouldn’t have to deal with. Yes, conventional hybrids and crops can cross into my plots as well, but they may represent qualities I like and don’t mind to rouge through.

    Did I also mention I have a problem with PVP and ownership of life? That’s another of my contentious issues here.

    Short of saying that from my own research and experience as well as contacts within the industry that it is very clear to me that the science of bio-tech is badly flawed theres not much else to debate on that point.

    Also, you may want to note this; I have no problem with movements of genes within a species or genus, it is broader movements and trasfers of DNA from beyond this scope that I disagree with, this is where to me and those much more studied than I that the science gets murky. When biotech is used to produce new varieties using genes from within the same family to create stable lines for the public domain, I have little to no issue with it.

    What I do disagree with wholeheartedly is being forced to live in a world where the unnatural becomes by default completely natural due to what amounts as a coexistence mandate, a shut up and take it, deal with each other and not us attitude.

    • Did I say in this post anywhere that farmers who don’t want to grow GMOs or consumers who don’t want to eat them should “shut up and take it”? I don’t recall saying that ever. I know there are some proponents of biotech that have said similar things, but I have not. This whole post was how farmers can work together to make sure everyone can grow what they want. I have previous post discussing how consumers can avoid GMOs if they wish. Please don’t put words in my mouth.

      First, I’d like to address the whole “Monsanto is coming after me because of a few accidental pollinations” myth. I am 100% certain that there have been mistaken cases where Monsanto sued a farmer unfairly. But I haven’t seen any evidence that Monsanto has done so. The most famous example is Percy Schmeiser who maintains that he didn’t do anything wrong and that Monsanto went after him unfairly. But when you look at the evidence, that the majority of the plants in his field had a patented trait, which would be impossible unless he purposefully selected for that trait. If you break the law, you get in trouble. If there’s accidental cross pollination, then you don’t get in trouble.

      Are patents on genes or plant variety protection a good idea at all? I don’t know. I do believe that plant breeders have a right to profit from their efforts just as much as a computer programmer or an electronics inventor or anyone else. If we’re going to say “all living things can’t be intellectual property”, that’s ok, but we’d better be prepared to have no improvements in plant varieties unless they’re done by hobbyists or governments. With the virus resistant papaya I mentioned as well as other government funded biotech traits, they are “open source” with no PVP.

      Anyway, you say that genes between species is unnatural. I know that is sounds very strange that one could take a gene from a bacteria and put in in a plant, for example. The funny thing is, can we call something unnatural if it happens in nature? There are some very interesting examples of inter-species gene transfer in nature. For example, there are red aphids that got their gene for making beta carotene from fungi! The human genome is full of viruses and stray DNA that got accidentally integrated over the millennia. If interspecies gene transfer is unnatural and unnatural is bad, then we’re guilty.

      It sounds crazy but if you accept the theory of common decent (where all organisms are descended from a single ancestral organism) then we all have the same genes. Depending on how related to different organisms are, we have some very similar genes that have undergone little mutation and some very different genes that have changed over millions of years. We humans each have many genes that are present in apes, many that are present in other mammals, some that are present in other animals like birds and fish, and even some that are present in plants and fungi. We even have genes that are similar to genes in bacteria!

  • Eric Baumholder

    When outcrossing from one crop to another has no effect, i.e., the result is substantially equivalent, it’s difficult to see much of a case for trespassing. When outcrossing from one crop to another is known to occur in conventional farming, that’s a foreseeable ‘risk’, and any farmer can be expected to bear the burden of that risk as a normal part of doing farming as a business.

    Those who wish to exceed these standards are doing so on their own, and we rightfully expect that they meet the burden of producing a non-standard product. Otherwise, you have the strange issue of a farmer ‘picking and choosing’ whom he or she prefers to consider a trespasser. And the perhaps larger issue of ‘free-ridership’. Under which persons who farm organically get a free ride from their neighbors when it comes to the costs of meeting organic standards. Which would offend notions of property ownership in a far more substantial way.

  • Cary

    So much wrong with this; I won’t address it all because it seems futile.

    First I want to ask you a question. What is the purpose of GMO alfalfa? As a perennial that grows quite densely, its need for herbicide control is extremely minimal. So why does it need to RR modified? What is the point and advantage of RR alfalfa? I mean aside from Monsanto making billions more dollars and ever firming its monopolistic grip on our food system. If nothing else answer me that!

    Now, for my issues with you original article and many of your responses to individual’s comments.

    First there is a small box that describes what Biofortified is about … providing factual information… much of what I’ve read from you posts are opinion, based loosely on what some might consider facts. You use the words “presumably” and “I’d imagine” several times, not exactly words that foster a sense that you actually know anything, but more of assumptions you make that surprisingly support your beliefs.

    1)At one point you state: “When things move from one person’s land to another person’s land, that is trespassing. Every person has a responsibility to keep their things to themselves, using reasonable methods to control their things.”

    So, is that why Monsanto has been able to successful sue traditional farmers for pollen drift and the contamination of the traditional farmer crops? Please site where you’ve read this is a law, or is this your own opinion.

    2)In your very first response to Sam C you make several messed up and overtly hypocritical statements.

    You state: “The groups bringing the suits may not be financially connected to the organic industry but they do have a clear agenda against conventional farming and biotechnology in particular. They are using coexistence as an excuse to bring their agendas into court. They’re pushing this idea that all the poor little organic farmers will be utterly destroyed if biotech sugar beets or alfalfa are grown even though any farmer worth his or her farm knows that unless the beets or alfalfa are grown for seed there isn’t a problem with cross pollination. The suits aren’t about coexistence, that’s clear, even though that’s what they want their donors to think.”

    My problem is, you seem to have a clear agenda against people who want to keep biotechnology, which by the way has not ever been proven safe for humans, out of their bodies as evidenced by the fact that you are Doctorial candidate in Genetics. You appear to have a financial reliance on these genetic mutants in our food system. Oh and those “poor little organic farmers”, as you so disdainfully refer to them as, when, not if, their field’s are contaminated by their neighbors, how exactly do you expect them to survive when they can no longer produce the product their buyer’s want? What do you say to the consumers who can no longer purchase GMO-free foods? These are not excuses! These are legitimate concerns that you don’t seem to care that others care about. And what if these farmers do want to grow their crops and get seeds? Then there is very much a risk, as you clearly admit. If there is that risk, then it should not be allowed!

    How can you be so sure that massive contamination isn’t possible, YOU CAN’T!! That is the problem, you cannot in any way, shape or form say that a major contamination isn’t possible, there is no way to know. There are no measures in the world available to keep contamination from happening and no amount of “conversation between neighbors” can guarantee it. Yes I see there are links and research on how to keep contamination risk to a minimum, but there is no grantees there. You live in a fantasy-land of idealism, but when your little bubble burst and a major contamination happens, who loses? Certainly not you, because it appears you don’t mind putting genetic mutants in your body. But those of us who actually DO care about our long-term health will suffer greatly by not having products we desperately want available to us. Your argument essential is you can’t prove it will happen, so lets risk it, however you cannot see all the possible ways and means that contamination could happen. But apparently that’s a risk you are willing to take because it doesn’t really affect you. Problem is when people take these risks, they tend to get bit in the ass, but again it’s not really a risk you, or Monsanto, are taking for yourselves, just for the millions of others that do care. Sure do hope you can sleep at night, I guess.

    3)You are a scientist, so you should understand science is highly imperfect. I’m a nutrition professional so I am very aware that many policies and consumer products are developed and produced base on scientific research that end up being extremely faulty. For example, in the 80’s margarine (trans-fat laden solidified oils) was produced and advertised as a better option for heart health then butter. The result? The rate of heart disease increased, because turn’s out that trans fat in your margarine is actually worse for you then the saturated fat in butter. Now entire cities ban the use of trans fat in restaurants, of course a lot of good that did for all those people who died of heart disease likely exacerbated by a product they used thinking they were doing something good for them. How about the low-fat diet push of 90’s, because eating fat will make you fat? Funny thing happened though; people ate low fat foods, but kept getting fatter! And now we know that there are certain fats, DHA and EPA Omege-3 fatty acids, that actual help lower serum triglycerides levels. So not only were American’s getting fatter their overall health was taking a hit by not getting all the nutrition it needed.

    It can take years for us to figure out that our science is flawed. Science is not the end all, and scientists are known for manipulating their research and statistics. So you cannot prove GMO is safe and co-existence is realistic, you can try but it won’t happen with all certainty! Perhaps you don’t think the risk is overly great if contamination does occur, but I do, as do millions of other American’s. I don’t think it’s reasonable at all to risk the well being of millions for one arrogant, greedy, monopolistic company, and all the little minions who want to work for them.

    4)You state in another response: “I’m not a perfectionist (ok, maybe a little) and you didn’t hit a sore spot, I just have a really straightforward way of writing. I enter every discussion with a positive outlook with the goal of learning and expanding my knowledge and worldview and I assume others are the same way unless they show otherwise (such as Mr. Smith and Mr. Bishop there).”

    You have a straightforward way of writing your OPINION, work on the fact part a bit more please. You claim to start every discussion with a positive outlook and some BS about learning and expanding, and you expect that of others. I refer back to your very inappropriate comment about the “poor little organic farmers” and “the special interests groups clear agenda against conventional farming”. So is this what you call a positive outlook and wiliness to expand knowledge? It seems as though you’ve quite resolutely formulated an opinion about organic farmers and the special interest groups that support organics, and it doesn’t appear positive in outlook, nor do you seem as though you are open to expanding your knowledge. And of course you keep that open mind etc… as long as people agree with to an extent. Once someone doesn’t, such as Mr Bishop and Mr Smith well then, they don’t qualify as worthy of keeping an open mind.

    Ultimately if this whole coexistence BS truly does come to pass, Organic farmers, ranchers, and consumers will likely loose. If it doesn’t come to pass, who really loses? Monsanto? I think they will survive just nicely with their current bank account. The cost-benefits clearly don’t support this.

    5)You state: “Surely there are situations where there has been pollination that caused a farmer to not be able to get their third party non-GMO certification, but I bet they’re relatively rare. And when it does happen they can use the courts to be compensated and hopefully the next year they’ll take more precautions and so will their neighbor. I disagree that there should be funding for testing of “contamination”. I don’t see what value there would be in that. One real consequence would be that some organic farmers could be harmed financially if people found out that there was .1% or whatever biotech seed in their product.”

    Well as long as YOU believe they are relatively rare, then I guess there is no harm in that, except for the “poor little organic farmer” who just lost his livelihood! But I guess they should have protected themselves a little better from things like wind and bees and rain. And the compensations you assume they will get from the courts, is based on the assumption they actual have the money for the lawyer’s and court fees, because farmers just have all this extra money laying around? And of course the neighbor they just sued is going to be willing to sit down and talk about the extra precautions they take next year. Really? Is this what you call and argument based on fact?

    And of course you would disagree with testing of “contamination”. You don’t see the value in it not because organic farmers would be harmed, but because that would be the proof that the USDA and you are so very wrong in your beliefs that this “co-existence” is viable. Organic farmers would likely benefit from it in the long run because it would provide evidence for the need of more regulation, not less.

    This is more of a personal thing now, but I think it speaks volumes of who you are and why no one should really take you seriously. If you are going to post an article trying to convince people that we should risk our food system for the financial gain of one company, don’t say things like: “I did write this in a bit of a hurry, having 50 papers to grade by tomorrow and each one takes 5-10 minutes.” While this may be just some school project for you so you can graduate, you are talking about topics and policies that affect the lives of billions of people. Have some respect for others!

    • What is the purpose of GMO alfalfa? As a perennial that grows quite densely, its need for herbicide control is extremely minimal. So why does it need to RR modified? What is the point and advantage of RR alfalfa?

      I spoke with our Alfalfa person and it appears that the main purpose is to make life a little easier in the first year of production and allow for control if required further down the line – some Alfalfa farmers do use 1st year herbicides rather than the oats on Alfalfa approach – Alfalfa farming, like any other form of farming, is not an homogenous activity that can be easily bucketed into a ‘do it this way or don’t do it at all’ type of a wossname.

      I mean aside from Monsanto making billions more dollars and ever firming its monopolistic grip on our food system. If nothing else answer me that!

      If it does nothing then explain to me how exactly Monsanto will gain in any way – why is a farmer going to pay a tech fee on top of the seed fee for a technology which is useless? Is your assumption that farmers are drivelling morons with no idea of how they farm or how weed pressure effects their individual location?

      I also find your “monopolistic view” stance rather bizarre – 30ish% share in various seed markets hardly makes for a monopoly, and the only reason there is anything vaguely like a monopoly on traits is because that is precisely how the patent system is set up – monopoly is granted for a period of time so that information is shared fully with the public and is free to use after the patent expired – as GM is in it’s infancy we are still in that initial period (for another year or two) – the playing field is set to change dramatically very soon.

      First there is a small box that describes what Biofortified is about … providing factual information… much of what I’ve read from you posts are opinion, based loosely on what some might consider facts. You use the words “presumably” and “I’d imagine” several times, not exactly words that foster a sense that you actually know anything, but more of assumptions you make that surprisingly support your beliefs.

      This I think may be a fundamental difference between a scientific approach to matters and a fundamentalist approach to matters – scientists tend to couch their statements in presumablies and I’d imagines precisely to reflect that they are not 100% certain on various matters – it allows discussion of opinion alongside facts without conflating the two.

      So, is that why Monsanto has been able to successful sue traditional farmers for pollen drift and the contamination of the traditional farmer crops? Please site where you’ve read this is a law, or is this your own opinion.

      Please cite where a farmer has been sued for pollen drift.

      My problem is, you seem to have a clear agenda against people who want to keep biotechnology, which by the way has not ever been proven safe for humans, out of their bodies as evidenced by the fact that you are Doctorial candidate in Genetics.

      The last part does not follow from the first – and the central part is true only so far as it is never possible to prove something 100% safe – GM crops (at least those currently released) have been demonstrated to have no adverse effects outside of those already associated with the unmodified versions of the same crops.

      You appear to have a financial reliance on these genetic mutants in our food system

      Everyone alive today has reliance on genetic mutants in our food system – From the above two posts it is clear you neither understand what genetics is, or indeed what a mutant is. There is absolutely no reason to believe that a doctoral candidate in genetics with funding from the USDA has any financial reliance whatsoever on the use or non-use of genetically modified organisms – the USDA funds research in all manner of agriculture, and jobs for those who hold a phD in genetics are certainly not limited to positions which rely on genetically modified organisms. (given the average income of a doctoral candidate suggesting they have financial ties to anything is pretty laughable to be perfectly honest)

      Oh and those “poor little organic farmers”, as you so disdainfully refer to them

      You make quite a point of this, you may have noticed that Anastasia was in fact making the point that it is rather belittling of the anti-GM side of the debate to frame organic farmers in that light. Well, you may have noticed that if you weren’t hell bent on interpretting everything through lenses designed to see fault with everything.

      when, not if, their field’s are contaminated by their neighbors, how exactly do you expect them to survive when they can no longer produce the product their buyer’s want?

      Herein lies the issue with stating facts and opinion as one and the same – you’re asserting without evidence that contamination is inevitable and that markets would be destroyed – if contamination was inevitable to the point you contend then it would literally be impossible to have different varieties of any crop – and the assertion that a farmer cannot survive when they can no longer produce what their buyers want ignores that 0% tolerance of GM in organic is essentially a self imposed and ridiculous requirement for the system (and ignoring that you’re basically expecting 99% of the industry to step in line to cater to the petty whims of 1%)

      I’m skipping the middle section primarily because your constant rant against science makes me a little ill, and you repeat the same nonsense about genetic mutants – I assume you avoid every selected crop ever – because they’re all genetic mutants, indeed, one wonders if you have to eat rocks considering all life on the planet is the end product of a ~4 billion year process of accumulated genetic mutation – its a wonder we don’t spontaneously combust.

      Ultimately if this whole coexistence BS truly does come to pass, Organic farmers, ranchers, and consumers will likely loose. If it doesn’t come to pass, who really loses? Monsanto? I think they will survive just nicely with their current bank account. The cost-benefits clearly don’t support this.

      Clearly? Show your working please – you make such a song and dance about facts and proper scientific working but all you offer is anecdote and opinion dressed up as fact – at least Anastasia has the intellectual honesty to present opinion as just that.

      This is more of a personal thing now

      Your whole tirade has been nothing but a personal thing littered with crackpot ideas about what a geneticist is, a general anti-science flavor and flecks of spittle around the edges.

      If you are going to post an article trying to convince people that we should risk our food system for the financial gain of one company, don’t say things like

      Once again you’re chiding Anastasia for being intellectually honest enough to accept a mistake in her writing and for explaining why this occured – perhaps you should remove the beam from thy own eye before attending to the mote in someone elses? (genetic mutants, loose, site, chiding the use of opinion in the piece while scattering your own post with as much pertinent fact as one might expect from Ken Ham,

      As a second point it is rather amusing that you view this as for the financial gain of a single company – clearly not the case –

      First, RR Alfalfa is a joint project between Forage genetics and Monsanto, so straight off the bat two companies are set to gain financially (Forage moreso than Monsanto I would guess given that trait price is generally only a small part of seed price) – after that one has to consider the individual farmers gains – if they aren’t gaining financially then they aren’t going to use the product (unless you assume farmers are stupid, which wouldn’t surprise me)

      Have some respect for others!

      Utterly hilarious given the spectacularly disrespectful rant preceding (and explaining the abject lack of respect I’ve offered up in my own spit flecked reply)

  • 1)At one point you state: “When things move from one person’s land to another person’s land, that is trespassing. Every person has a responsibility to keep their things to themselves, using reasonable methods to control their things.”

    So, is that why Monsanto has been able to successful sue traditional farmers for pollen drift and the contamination of the traditional farmer crops? Please site where you’ve read this is a law, or is this your own opinion.

    This is a basic concept in trespass law. Comment i of Restatement (Second) of Torts § 158 says

    The actor, without himself entering the land, may invade another’s interest in its exclusive possession by throwing, propelling, or placing a thing either on or beneath the surface of the land or in the air space above it.…[I]t is not necessary that the foreign matter should be thrown directly and immediately upon the other’s land. It is enough that an act is done with knowledge that it will to a substantial certainty result in the entry of the foreign matter. Thus one … who so builds an embankment that during ordinary rainfalls the dirt from it is washed upon adjacent lands, becomes a trespasser on the other’s land.

  • […] corn for example would have to take steps to avoid cross-pollination. This is usually worked out by farmers talking to each other and coming to mutual arrangements; liability is shared- it is your responsibility to take both […]

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