[imgcontainer right] [img:bob-quinn.jpeg] Bob Quinn, an organic wheat farmer in Montana, says there ought to be four conditions to any plan for “co-existence” between genetically modified and organic crops. [/imgcontainer]

Despite fierce opposition from businesses, organizations and consumers supporting organic agriculture, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has determined it will approve the full deregulation or modified deregulation of genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa. The agency will announce its decision on, or shortly after, January 24.

The USDA is pushing for “coexistence” between organic and genetically engineered farmers. Organic advocates wonder if such a “middle ground” is possible. This negotiation is taking place in the conflict over GE alfalfa. 

Things are heating up. Today (Jan. 20), the House Agriculture Committee will hold a public “forum” on the issue. And two days ago, senators Saxby Chambliss, R-GA, and Pat Roberts., R-KS, and U.S. Representative Frank Lucas, R-OK, sent USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack a letter asking him to deregulate GE alfalfa without restrictions.

On December 17, the USDA released its environmental impact statement (EIS) of Monsanto’s genetically engineered (GE) Roundup Ready alfalfa. USDA produced the EIS in response to a federal judge, who asked for a more thorough analysis of the potential environmental, economic and health impacts of GE alfalfa before the USDA approved deregulation.

Although the EIS outlines three options for GE alfalfa (continued regulation, full deregulation or conditional deregulation), the USDA has made it clear it will deregulate this crop by the end of January 2011, pushing the two sides into “co-existence.”

The USDA’s decision was bad news for organic farmer Bob Quinn of north-central Montana.

Though Quinn’s main cash crop is organic wheat, like many others in the organic industry he believes that deregulating GE alfalfa to any extent establishes a precedence that will have long-term consequences for all organic farmers, the land, the USDA organic label program and consumers seeking to avoid genetically engineered products.

[imgcontainer left] [img:CSAkhorasan_0708.jpeg] Khorasan wheat. [/imgcontainer]

Quinn has spent decades resurrecting, protecting and marketing an ancient grain known as khorasan. 

The exact origin of this “unadulterated” variety of wheat is unknown, though it was first brought to the U.S. from Egypt in the 1940s. Marketed as Kamut, this whole grain has tested to be far superior in nutritional value and digestibility than its genetically modified wheat counterpart.  

Quinn’s concern is that the USDA’s deregulation of GM alfalfa represents a disregard for the work and principles of the organic industry and its producers, as well as the safety of consumers. (Listen to Bob Quinn here.

Quinn said all of the discussions regarding potential damages to organic producers from GE crop contamination are really part of a much larger problem.

“It’s very frustrating,” he said. “We’re now being told that we need to ‘co-exist,’ yet we’re dealing with an industry that claims full ownership without accepting any of the liability that comes with that.”

The USDA has asked the organic industry to work on a program that would allow the “co-existence” of GE alfalfa with organics, and has allowed 30 days to work out compromises within the EIS that would regulate how this co-existence between GE and organics would take place.

Quinn said the biotech industry has a responsibility to be able to control what it produces, and, at a minimum, four points need to be addressed.

Following Europe’s example, the first step, Quinn said, is labeling.

“The consumers have a right to know what they’re buying and eating, and it has to start by labeling foods that contain GE (genetically engineered) or GM (genetically modified) products.”

Second, Quinn said that in order to eliminate the risk of cross-pollination or contamination of non-GM crops, the GM plants should be made sterile. 

“Their gene jockeys can do just about anything — at least that’s what they sell themselves on. They have the capability of producing a male sterile (plant) to prevent out-crossing, or a sterile pollen,” he said.

Next, Quinn said that all GM seeds should be required to be marked.

“We need an inexpensive, yet reliable way to distinguish GM seed from non-GM seed at any point in the handling system,” Quinn said, “a marker visible under a UV light or something similar, so as to prevent accidental contamination during handling.”

And lastly, Quinn pointed out the absolute need for the biotech industry to be held accountable for the products they manufacture and the results they produce.

[imgcontainer right] [img:kamut.jpg] Quinn’s wheat is used to make Kamut products. He worries that should organic and GM crops be raised side by side — the apparent position of the USDA — his fields could be contaminated. [/imgcontainer]

“These companies must be liable for what they’re doing so we don’t have farmers suing farmers when neither is technically at fault,” Quinn said. “If we look back over the past several years, we could easily say that billions of dollars have been lost due to GM contamination, and that’s just on the basis of market pricing. We haven’t even begun to discuss how the environmental damages equate to dollars and cents.”

Quinn speculated that if Monsanto were to start getting billed for the clean-up expenses incurred from damaging run-off from the chemicals required to grow GM crops, things might start to change. 

“As far as I know, we haven’t tried to put a price tag on the dead zones in the Gulf, and I don’t know if that’s even possible,” the farmer said, “but at the very least there needs to be some accountability.”

Lisa Hare is a Nebraska writer.

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