Promoting a conversation on genetic engineering |

Promoting a conversation on genetic engineering

Urban C. Lehner

In case you hadn’t noticed, government policy on biotech crops did NOT reverse course in recent months.

There had been talk it would. Last December USDA had floated the possibility of approving transgenic alfalfa only under certain conditions, despite an environmental impact study giving the trait a clean bill of health.

Conventional agriculture groups and ag committee Congressmen lashed back and in the end USDA approved the trait unconditionally. Awhile later the agency used a partial, conditional approval to circumvent a court-ordered ban on transgenic sugar beet planting. Still later it approved an ethanol-friendly corn trait over protests from millers and food processors. Far from backing away from biotech, USDA moved full-speed ahead.

Asked about the events, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in March that USDA’s aim in floating the conditional alfalfa approval was “to precipitate a conversation.” To some, that may sound like a face-saving retreat. Yet in suggesting that a conversation is needed, Vilsack is on to something. Neither side is happy with the secretary, but he’s on to something.

What we have now isn’t a conversation; it’s a dialogue of the deaf. Those who grow biotech crops want science and only science to reign. They maintain that if government testing indicates no harm to human beings or the environment from a trait, they should have an absolute right to plant it.

Organic growers are equally absolute. They have asked courts to ban the planting of genetically engineered alfalfa and sugar beets. Courts in California have sympathized with their view that the risk of contamination of organic crops is an environmental concern. USDA has been forced to go back to the drawing board and prepare full environmental-impact statements.

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But the appearance of trace amounts of transgenic material in organic crops isn’t so much bad for the environment as it is bad for the organic grower, who can no longer receive a premium for what he produces. In theory, all organic alfalfa could become contaminated, causing a loss of germplasm. But that isn’t likely to happen in reality and there are ways of protecting against it short of banning biotech crops.

The conversation we should have is not about science. The science, at least so far, favors biotech crops. What we need to discuss is the potential harm to non-biotech growers, as opposed to the environment, and what if anything to do about it.

It’s really a conversation about property rights – the sometimes conflicting rights of growers of organic crops and growers of transgenic crops to plant their land with the seeds they see fit. When both exercise their rights to the full and contamination follows, who bears the risk of loss?

Science won’t answer this question. Politics could, but it’s understandable that organic growers have turned to the courts instead of the political system for help. Biotech crops are big business, organics a niche, so a lobbying battle will likely favor biotech growers. By proposing a conversation, USDA is searching for a win-win, a way of helping organic growers without harming biotech growers.

Is a win-win possible? It’s hard to imagine one that gives both sides the absolute property rights they seek. One obvious solution – much greater spacing between the two kinds of crops than is already specified by USDA and the seed companies – would limit the rights of transgenic growers. Going still further and designating some areas of the country for transgenics and others for organics would limit the rights of both groups.

Another solution – providing compensation for organic growers whose crops have become contaminated – raises the question of who would pay. It could be the grower who caused the contamination, but often the source of contamination will be unknown or in dispute. It could also be the seed companies, the government or transgenic growers as a group. No one will be eager to volunteer for the privilege, but the government could help by allowing organic growers to buy crop insurance that covers contamination.

Still another solution is to change the definition of organic crops. Purist consumers might howl if crops containing trace amounts of genetically engineered material could be labeled organic, but abandoning the zero-tolerance approach would eliminate the risk of greatest concern to organic growers. The government allows trace amounts of arsenic in drinking water. Why insist on a stricter standard for organic crops?

We can have a “conversation” about all this, and the secretary shouldn’t be condemned for suggesting one. It isn’t likely to be a pleasant conversation, and in the end it may not prove productive. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have it. USDA has set up an advisory committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture, and that’s a good place for the conversation to start.

There will be those on both sides who won’t want to talk. Some transgenic growers won’t give up easily on “science rules,” and they’re still winning most of the battles. Some organic growers (and many of their allies in the courts of law and public opinion) wouldn’t be satisfied even if the risk of contamination could be eliminated altogether; their real motive is to outlaw all transgenic crops.

But before they dig in further, each side should consider the alternative. In the absence of a conversation, organic and other non-biotech growers face the likelihood of continued losses in the USDA approval process. Transgenic growers face the likelihood of continued litigation, which at the least means delays and uncertainty for new traits and could someday hand transgenics a real setback.

For neither side is the status quo so favorable that a conversation isn’t worth having.