Watch CBSN Live

What "Co-Existence" Means for Biotech Crops: No More Rubber-Stamp Approvals

As part of a fight over Monsanto's (MON) genetically engineered alfalfa, USDA secretary Tom Vilsack has told big farm groups that they need to find ways to "co-exist" with people who don't plant GE crops, notably organic farmers. If this strikes you as a common sense argument for the ideals of neighborly decency --well, think again. It's a lot more than that.

Mostly it means that the days of easy and unrestricted approval of GE crops might be over. Groups like American Farm Bureau Federation and the American Soybean Association aren't taking this lightly.

They've never had to worry about "co-existing" with organic farmers before and have no interest in starting now. Last week, several groups went over Vilsack's head and sent a letter to the White House complaining that the USDA's attempts to establish "far-reaching policy changes for agricultural 'coexistence'" would "have the potential to adversely impact all producers of agricultural biotech crops." At stake, they warned, is nothing less than "the integrity of the American agriculture system."

Why we can't all get along
Here's what they don't like about Vilsack's "co-existence" plan. For the first time, the USDA is considering placing limits on where, when and how GE crops can be planted -- like at least five miles away from a conventional alfalfa farm, for instance. Ever since GE plants were first approved in 1993, farmers have had carte blanche to plant as many Monsanto seeds as they want. The USDA doesn't even keep tabs on where GE crops are planted.

The problem with this is that plants don't do a very good job of containing themselves. Pollen from GE farms often blows over into neighboring fields, contaminating them with new and sometimes undesirable DNA. This becomes an issue if those nearby farms are certified organic, because GE material isn't allowed under organic standards and is prohibited by buyers in Europe and Asia. In an open letter posted on the USDA's web site, Vilsack assumed the new role of referee:

We have an obligation to carefully consider--the potential of cross-fertilization to non-GE alfalfa from GE alfalfa â€" a significant concern for farmers who produce for non-GE markets at home and abroad.
The fact that Vilsack is even acknowledging the needs of organic farmers -- and had the gall to invite some of them to a closed door meeting last month -- speaks to the ascendant lobbying power of the organic movement, specifically organic dairy. Alfalfa is one of the key crops used to feed dairy cows, so contaminated alfalfa is a big problem for organic milk producers. Unlike other GE plants, alfalfa is a perennial crop, meaning it has longer life cycles. It also spreads very easily through pollen. In a resolution opposing GE alfalfa, the American Beekeeping Federation warns that bee-facilitated gene transfer "would spread uncontrollably year after year thereafter."
The USDA certainly doesn't want to see GE crops stamped out -- the agency is still feverishly pro-biotech and says it harbors no doubts about the safety of GE crops -- but with organic acreage growing about 15% a year, it's a force they've got to reckon with. Sometime in the next month or so, the USDA is expected to make its final ruling on how it will deal with GE alfalfa.

Image by Tobias Higbie