USDA Seeks Way to Compensate Farmers for GM Contamination

By Marion Nestle

An intriguing item in the latest issue of Food Chemical News suggests Tom Vilsack is working to revitalize the rural economy

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I am a long-time reader of Food Chemical News, a weekly newsletter covering a huge range of food issues that is invaluable for someone like me who lives outside the Beltway and does not have access to the ins and outs of Washington, D.C., politics.

An item in the August 30 issue caught my attention: USDA secretary Tom Vilsack's instructions to his department's new Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture (AC21).

Get this: Vilsack told AC21 to come up with a plan for compensating organic or conventional farmers whose crops become contaminated by GM genes through pollen drift.

According to Food Chemical News, Vilsack gave a three-part charge to the panel:

  1. What types of compensation mechanisms, if any, would be appropriate?
  2. What would be necessary to implement such mechanisms?
  3. What other actions would be appropriate to bolster or facilitate coexistence among different agricultural production systems in the United States?

Vilsack urged the committee to address the questions in order and not yield to temptation to address the third question first.

"This is a very specific charge," Vilsack stressed. He also told the AC21 not to worry if their proposed solutions would require an act of Congress or new regulations. "Don't worry about the mechanism. We'll figure out how to make it happen."

Why is Vilsack doing this?

"What motivates me is an opportunity to revitalize the rural economy," the agriculture secretary declared. "I have no favorite [type of agriculture] here. I don't have that luxury. I just want to find consensus. I believe that people who are smart and reasonable can find a solution."

Responding to a question from panel member, Vilsack said the AC21′s failure to come up with solutions would result in "continuation of what we have today.... If we want to revitalize rural America, we can't do it while we're fighting each other."

Deputy USDA secretary Kathleen Merrigan cited the recent droughts and flooding as an "overwhelming time for agriculture."

I wonder how we are going to prevent the loss of more farmers and encourage young people to take up farming ... you have to come up with scenarios where there's lack of data. You don't have to figure out the politics. That's my job and the secretary's. Just answer the questions [in the charge] and let us carry the water.

Interesting, no?

Could this possibly mean that instead of Monsanto suing organic or conventional farmers whose crops get intermingled with patented GM varieties, Monsanto might now have to pay the farmers for the damage caused by the contamination?

I can't wait to see what AC21 comes up with.

Image: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson.

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This post also appears on Food Politics.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2011/09/usda-seeks-way-to-compensate-farmers-for-gm-contamination/244664/