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USDA Policy Fails to Address GMO Contamination of Organic Crops

By Lisa J. Bunin, Ph.D.

At a time when consumers are demanding greater access to organic and non-genetically engineered (GE) foods, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) latest, “coexistence” policy threatens the ability and right of consumers to make that shift.

The public has until March 4 to challenge the USDA’s coexistence policy. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

The USDA coined the term ”coexistence” to refer to the idea that organic and GE crops can both be grown in this country without either adversely affecting the other. But the agency’s approach does not take into account the fact that non-GE crops can become contaminated by GE pollen and seeds that can drift many miles at a time.

 

The USDA argues this can be mitigated through informal neighbor-farmer agreements and by taking out insurance to pay for damages resulting from contamination. But, since GE agriculture remains completely unregulated, this so-called coexistence policy allows the biotech industry to escape liability. Instead, it puts exclusive responsibility to protect against contamination on organic and other non-GE farmers. 

 

Organic farmers know all too well that their crops can become contaminated by GE crops as pollen and seeds drift miles away from their original planting location. The recent case of an Australian organic farmer, who sued his neighbor after he found GE canola growing on his field, demonstrates the seriousness of the problem and the tip of the iceberg. Without mandatory GE contamination prevention measures in place, organic and non-GE farmers face real risks but have little recourse to protect their businesses. Prospects of GE contamination threaten livelihoods, trading partnerships and the ability of farmers and food producers to confidently supply non-GE markets. Even the USDA admits that’s the case. 

 

In August 2011, USDA Secretary Vilsack charged his newly appointed Advisory Committee with addressing the problem of GE contamination by identifying ways to compensate farmers after-the-fact, rather than protect them from contamination in the first place. The Committee was charged with assuming that GE contamination was an inevitable and acceptable cost of doing business, as long as the affected farmers were compensated. This is what coexistence in action looks like to the USDA. But, GE contamination is completely unacceptable to those farmers who reject the use of GE technology and who sell their crops to organic and non-GE markets. Meanwhile, many GE foods continue seeping into our food supply until there may be no turning back.

 

To directly address the problem, organic advocates are demanding the USDA identify and mandate the adoption of proven GE contamination measures by GE farmers and patent holders. And, they are calling upon the USDA to institute an immediate moratorium on all new GE crop approvals, until such measures can be put into place nationwide.

 

Until March 4, the public has a unique opportunity to challenge the USDA’s coexistence policy. The agency has issued a Federal Register Notice and opened a docket to receive public feedback on the policy, which pivots around two primary recommendations: the creation of non-binding farmer-neighbor “coexistence agreements,” and organic and other non-GE farmers taking out insurance to recoup losses from GE contamination.  

 

In the first instance, the USDA recommends that GE and non-GE farmers voluntarily negotiate non-binding “coexistence agreements” as a way to preemptively resolve inevitable GE contamination issues. But that is unlikely, as it would pit farmer against farmer, which is neither a viable nor a long-lasting solution to conflicts in farm communities.

 

Instead, organic farmers will likely opt out of growing certain crops altogether rather than risk contamination. Clear losers under this option are organic and other non-GE farmers because threats of contamination preclude them from growing the crops of their choice. Moreover, the proposal ignores the real-life issues that farmers face such as short planting windows that make it difficult to stagger GE and non-GE crop plantings, absentee landlords and scenarios where contamination originates from farms located well beyond the next door neighbors’ field.

 

In the second instance, the USDA recommends that organic and non-GE farmers take out insurance policies to pay for damage resulting from GE contamination. This allows the biotech industry to abdicate responsibility for any harm caused to non-GE growers, making the polluted victim, not the polluter, pay compensation. 

 

In both cases, the USDA takes responsibility for GE contamination prevention out of the hands of both the agency and the biotech industry and puts it squarely on the shoulders of organic and non-GE farmers, their families and their communities. Coexistence is not GE contamination prevention and never can be. Instead, what’s truly needed is for the USDA to develop mandatory prevention practices that protect organic and non-GE markets and consumer choice.

 

Visit EcoWatch’s GE FOOD page for more related news on this topic.

 

 

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Trump's Response to Climate-Related Disasters: Open America's 'Crown Jewels' to Oil Drilling

By Andy Rowell

You would have thought that after being battered by two devastating hurricanes in recent weeks, which experts believe were fueled by warmer seas caused by climate change, even the most die-hard climate denier would think again.

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You would have thought that as the cost of rebuilding after Hurricanes Irma and Harvey mounts, with an estimated bill of $150 billion so far, that politicians would press to move away from a fossil fuel economy.

But you would be wrong again. In fact the opposite is happening.

Instead of pushing for clean technology and to end our oil addiction, the Trump administration is quietly pushing to open up one of America's great last wilderness areas, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to oil drilling.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—or ANWR for short—has been described as "one of the largest intact ecosystems in the world," and "the crown jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge System and one of the most important protected areas on Earth."

Anyone who knows about contemporary American petro-politics will know that the fight over ANWR is not new. It is a 40 year "multi-generational" fight. The naturalist, Peter Matthiessen, once called the battle over ANWR the "longest running, most acrimonious environmental battle in American history."

The oil industry and its allies have long salivated over the prospect of drilling in the refuge's 19.6 million acres. They have long argued that the refuge, home to caribou, polar bears and many endangered species, also houses an estimated 10 billion of barrels of recoverable oil.

There could be more oil, there could be much less, there could be none—no one really knows for sure.

The industry has wanted to drill the refuge for decades, but have been stopped by a determined coalition of environmentalists, First Nations and conservationists.

But for how much longer? When Trump became president he said that opening up ANWR was a top priority. And it seems that despite the recent Hurricanes, Trump is pressing ahead to do this.

As the Washington Post reported at the end of last week: "The Trump administration is quietly moving to allow energy exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge ... with a draft rule that would lay the groundwork for drilling."

Although the Trump administration is pushing for the move, the final say on whether drilling goes ahead lies with Congress.

But in the meantime, officials from the Interior Department—now stuffed full of pro-oil appointees—are quietly modifying a regulation from the 1980's that would allow the industry to undertake seismic surveys.

The Post acquired a leaked memo from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acting director, James Kurth, to prepare an assessment and a proposed rule to update regulations which go back to the eighties.

Kurth wrote: "When finalized, the new regulation will allow for applicants to [submit] requests for approval of new exploration plans."

Once the rule is finalized, companies could bid to undertake seismic testing in the refuge.

Environmentalists are naturally outraged. Defenders of Wildlife president, Jamie Rappaport Clark, who led the Fish and Wildlife Service under President Bill Clinton, told the Post: "The administration is very stealthily trying to move forward with drilling on the Arctic's coastal plain ... This is a complete about-face from decades of practice."

"This is a really big deal," adds Niel Lawrence, Alaska director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "This is a frontal attack in an ideological battle. The Arctic is the Holy Grail."

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The Pacific bluefin tuna is among the most depleted species on the planet, having been fished down more than 97 percent from its historic, unfished size. For years, this prized fish has been in dire need of strong policies that would reverse that decline, but the two organizations responsible for its management—the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) and the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC)—failed in their recent efforts, allowing overfishing to continue and further risking the future of the species.

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Despite this commitment, the work to help Pacific bluefin recover has only begun. In the fishing season that ended on June 30, Japanese fishermen exceeded their catch limits by 334 metric tons, and with many reports of illegal fishing in Japan's waters, the real amount could be higher. The U.S., South Korea and Mexico also exceeded limits over the past two years. Rebuilding the species under the new quotas and timeline will be nearly impossible if such overages continue. All countries that fish for Pacific bluefin must pledge to strengthen their domestic controls and monitoring programs to guarantee that the commitments to rebuilding made this year are not squandered in the future.

The decision on Pacific bluefin made at the joint meeting could signal a move toward a greater focus on conservation at regional fisheries management organizations like the WCPFC and IATTC. This action by major fishing nations indicates that concrete action is possible. Fishermen and fleets now hold the key to a sustained recovery, and all countries must work together to uphold the new rules. If they can do that, real change on the water may come sooner than many of us expected.

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