Genetically modified crops get boost over organics with

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Genetically modified crops get boost over organics with recent USDA rulings


Washington Post

By Lyndsey Layton


Wednesday, March 23, 2011


At the supermarket, most shoppers are oblivious to a battle raging within U.S. agriculture and the Obama
administration’s role in it. Two thriving but opposing sectors


organics and genetically engineered crops


have been
warring on the farm, in the cour
ts and in Washington.


Organic growers say that, without safeguards, their foods will be contaminated by genetically modified crops growing
nearby. The genetic engineering industry argues that its way of farming is safe and should not be restricted in ord
er to
protect organic competitors.


Into that conflict comes Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who for two years has been promising something
revolutionary: finding a way for organic farms to coexist alongside the modified plants.


But in recent weeks,
the administration has announced a trio of decisions that have clouded the future of organics and
boosted the position of genetically engineered (GE) crops. Vilsack approved genetically modified alfalfa and a modified
corn to be made into ethanol, and he g
ave limited approval to GE sugar beets.


The announcements were applauded by GE industry executives, who describe their genetically modified organisms as
the farming of the future. But organics supporters were furious, saying their hopes that the Obama ad
ministration
would protect their interests were dashed.


“It was boom, boom boom,” said Walter Robb, co
-
chief executive of Whole Foods Markets, a major player in organics.
“These were deeply disappointing. They were such one
-
sided decisions.”


To a growi
ng cadre of consumers who pay attention to how their food is produced, the agriculture wars are nothing
short of operatic, pitting technology against tradition in a struggle underscored by politics and profits.


“Each side is so passionate,” Vilsack said
in a recent interview. “And each side is convinced that it’s right.”


The two sides are not clashing over the ethics or safety of genetic engineering, in which plants are modified in the
laboratory with genes from another organism to make them more pest
-
r
esistant or to produce other traits. Instead, the
argument is over the potential for contamination: pollen and seeds from GE crops can drift across fields to nearby
organic plants. That has triggered fears that organic crops could be overtaken by modified
crops. Contamination can cost
organic growers


some overseas markets, for example, have rejected organic products when tests showed they carried
even trace amounts of GE material.


Organics supporters also say that, as the number of genetically engineere
d crops grows, so does the risk. And some
conventional farmers who don’t use GE seeds are also concerned about their crops. USDA has approved 81 GE crops


it has never denied a proposal


and 22 applications are pending.


“It’s really about the right to
farm and the right to choose,” Robb said. “You shouldn’t farm in a way that affects the way
others farm.”


But the GE industry counters that farmers should be free to grow the crops because they do not harm other plants. GE
boosters say it is the best way to feed a growing global population because farmers can raise more food and use fewer
pesticides and less f
ertilizer.


“Biotechnology can help crops thrive in drought
-
prone areas, improve the nutrition content of foods, grow alternative
energy sources and improve the lives of farmers and rural communities around the globe,” Jim Greenwood, head of
Biotechnology

Industry Organization, said this year.


Some recent studies, however, suggest that the proliferation of GE crops and the pesticide used on them has led to the
development of “super weeds” resistant to that pesticide.


Since GE crops debuted in 1992, the
y have been embraced by many U.S. farmers. The vast majority of soy, corn, cotton
and canola seed is genetically engineered. Although GE sugar beets were temporarily taken out of production by a court
ruling, they had captured 95 percent of the market.


F
oods made from GE crops are not labeled, but the typical American consumes them regularly because most processed
products contain ingredients made from modified soy, corn, canola and sugar beets.


Organic agriculture, meanwhile, has also been expanding. A
lthough organics represent just 3.7 percent of the food sold
in this country, sales of food and personal care products reached $26.6 billion in 2009, according to the Organic Trade
Association.


To meet the legal definition of organic, crops must be raise
d without chemical pesticides and fertilizers, irradiation or
genetic modification.


Vilsack has said organics can help struggling small farms stay afloat. But he has also long supported genetic engineering


the industry named him “Governor of the Year”
when he was Iowa’s chief executive. “I see both sides,” he said.


Vilsack arrived at the USDA to find the regulations on genetically modified foods outdated and the issue tangled in
litigation.


In December, he called an unusual summit between the sides.

He said the USDA had finished a court
-
ordered study of
the environmental impact of GE alfalfa and faced a choice: granting unconditional approval to the crop, or approving it
with restrictions, such as buffer zones between farms. The GE companies and farm
ing groups argued against limitations,
saying that the USDA was overstepping its authority.


Vilsack’s effort was slammed by Republican lawmakers and conservative publications. On Jan. 19, congressional
Republicans told Vilsack that the idea of restrictin
g GE alfalfa was “troubling.” And on Jan. 20, Vilsack heard more of the
same from the House agriculture committee.


During the three weeks that followed, Vilsack announced approval of GE alfalfa, sugar beets and corn.


Organics supporters were shocked. T
hey had fully expected Vilsack to require some limitations on GE alfalfa.


“Vilsack was very serious about the [coexistence] option, and people involved thought it was a done deal,” said Andrew
Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety. “Then Vilsack is call
ed to the White House for questioning.”


Vilsack confirmed that he attended White House meetings. But, he said, ultimately regulations prevented him from
restricting GE crops. Under the 24
-
year
-
old rules, the USDA can set limits only if the GE plant harms

other plants. The
agency has little authority to consider, for example, whether a GE crop poses economic harm to an organic crop.


If Vilsack

had been hoping to restrict GE crops, the timing could not have been worse. Republicans had just won control
of the House, and several farm
-
state members were adamantly opposed to any restrictions on GE crops. Obama was
trying to bolster his credentials a
s being business
-
friendly and promising to reduce unnecessary regulation. The
administration already had been pushing trade partners for greater acceptance of GE seeds.


The GE industry is declaring victory for the time being, but the wars have not dissip
ated.


Monsanto has sued the government for not fully deregulating GE sugar beets. The Center for Food Safety is again suing
the USDA to stop the planting of GE alfalfa and sugar beets.


Critics of genetic engineering refer to a 2000 incident in which a
GE corn meant for animal feed infiltrated tortillas, corn
chips and other foods. More than 300 foods were recalled, and farmers were awarded a $110 million settlement for lost
income.


Syngenta, maker of the GE corn to be used for ethanol, has said it wil
l reduce risk of contamination by requiring farmers
to grow the crop near ethanol plants and sell only to those plants, among other measures.


Sharon Bomer, an executive vice president at Biotechnology Industry Organization, said “there is deep appreciati
on” in
the GE industry for the need to minimize the spread of the crops. She said organic farmers must protect their crops.
“The burden is on them,” she said.


But GE critics are not satisfied. “To say ‘just trust me’ is rather absurd when we’re talking a
bout profit
-
related
companies,” said George Siemon, chief executive of Organic Valley, a major organic farmers’ cooperative.


Vilsack said “co
-
existence” is not dead, and he intends to push on.


“I had no expectation that the dialogue was going to end in

some grand understanding or a kumbaya moment,” he said.
“This is going to require a lot of work by reasonable, smart people to get this done. It’s in the interest of the country for

these folks to stop fighting and get together and figure out how to live
in the same neighborhood.”



QUESTIONS

1.

Define:


organic
-



GMF’s
-



Cadre
-


Operatic
-


Biotechnology
-



Buffer zone
-


K
umbaya

-


2. What is the “boost” that the headline refers to?







3. “The two sides are not clashing over the ethics or safety of genetic engineering…” What is genetic engineering?
What questions of ethics and safety was the author referring to? How does this battle differ from those debates? How
is it similar?





4. W
hy do some farmers genetically modify crops? Why do some consumers like organic food?






5. How does genetically modified farming affect other farmers? What are some other activities that people can do on
their own property that will affect other people
?






6. What would happen if government tried to regulate all of these effects? What if it did not try to regulate any of
them? How should it decide what to regulate?






7. “T
he USDA can set limits only if the GE plant harms other plants. The agency has little authority to consider, for
example, whether a GE crop poses economic harm to an organic crop.” Why do some organic consumers turn down
food with GE traces in it, even if
government does not deem these foods to be harmed? Should government
accommodate these consumers’ and producers’ wishes? What if there were 100 million organic customers? What if
there were only ten?






8. What would be some possible effects of curtaili
ng GE foods?






9. Who is Tom Vilsack? Where does he get his authority over crop regulations?






10. What does Andrew Kimbrell suggest influenced Vilsack’s decision? Why does he think this is inappropriate? Do
you agree?





11. “To say ‘just trust
me’ is rather absurd when we’re talking about profit
-
related companies.” What would happen
to a profit making company if people could not trust it? Who does George Siemon think we should trust, if we should
not trust people motivated by profit? Should we t
rust the organic industry?