By Tom Laskawy
One of the big debates in agriculture right now involves “coexistence” between farmers who use genetically modified or GMO seeds and those who don’t. This is far more than an academic debate; in question is the risk of “contamination” of conventional or organic crops by GMO crops. The wind, insects, and even the farmers themselves can inadvertently cause this type of cross-pollination, and it puts organic farms at risk of losing their organic status and conventional farmers at risk of losing sales to countries that don’t allow imports of GMO foods.
The risk of such “transgenic” contamination has grown along with the market share of biotech seeds developed by Monsanto and DuPont — to the point that around 90 percent of corn, 90 percent of soy, and 80 percent of cotton grown in the U.S. is genetically modified.
Now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is stepping in. Just before the Thanksgiving holiday, a USDA advisory board released a report [PDF] recommending that the government offer a special form of crop insurance for farmers concerned about GMO contamination.
The USDA advisory group, called AC21 (short for the Advisory Committee on 21st Century Agriculture), is meant to represent the industry as a whole. The group included participants from all sectors of agriculture: large, small, conventional, and organic, including executives, farmers, and researchers. In reality, however, around three-quarters of the participants represent groups or organizations affiliated with big agribusiness, such as the American Farm Bureau, the National Corn Growers Association, and the American Soybean Association. And while USDA Chief Tom Vilsack had the good sense not to put a Monsanto representative on the board, DuPont, another major biotech firm, managed to get its top lawyer appointed.
So it should come as no surprise that organic trade groups attacked the board’s conclusion as far too generous to the interests of the biotech industry and the farmers who use its seeds. According to Reuters, the National Organic Coalition lashed out in a press release:
“This proposal allows USDA and the agricultural biotechnology industry to abdicate responsibility for preventing [GMO] contamination while making the victims of [GMO] pollution pay for damages resulting from transgenic contamination,” it said.
But the reality of the report is less conclusive. The authors themselves acknowledge that “members of the AC21 are not in agreement” on whether contamination is even a problem, much less on how to compensate for it.
In general, the report reads like something the members came up with under bureaucratic duress. There are no real, specific recommendations, merely a list of “things USDA could do” to address genetic contamination (which the report says may or may not be occurring) if one day it chooses to do so.
If there is anything of real value in the report, it’s that AC21 specifically asked the USDA to quantify and measure the economic harm to farmers caused by genetic contamination. At this point there is very little data on just how much and where contamination is occurring. And what data does exist has been gathered by anti-GMO advocacy groups. Numbers coming from the USDA will carry far more weight. Should USDA publish that data, it could do more to affect policy than anything else in the report.
What this report does conclusively establish, however, is the huge and growing chasm between practitioners and supporters of industrial-scale agriculture and their sustainable counterparts.
The board participants themselves recognized this problem. In one of several extended comments attached to the report, boardmember Charles Benbrook of the Organic Center declared that it “does not embody significant compromise” and “dodges key issues.”
In short, no bridging the agriculture chasm here.
And that’s a big problem — not just because we need sustainable agriculture to feed a growing population on a warming planet, but also because we’re starting to see the first signs of a coming crisis in industrial agriculture.
A recent article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune documented the growing ineffectiveness of Monsanto’s genetically modified Roundup Ready crops due to the rise of pesticide-resistant “superweeds” caused by the over-reliance on one type of GMO seed. Biotech companies are “solving” the problem by engineering seeds which are resistant to older, far more toxic herbicides like 2,4-D (aka Agent Orange) and its close cousin dicamba. The article reads:
2,4-D … is far more toxic to plants than Roundup, and many environmental groups fear it will cause increased risks for cancer, hormone disruption and other health risks for people. The EPA, however, says that there is insufficient evidence to classify it as a carcinogen, and that if used according to regulations, it is safe.
Monsanto is close behind with other seeds that will be immune to dicamba, a herbicide in the same family as 2,4-D. Both are more prone to drifting far beyond their intended fields, but the companies say they will require farmers to use newer, less volatile formulations.
Many mainstream observers roll their eyes when discussions of the risks of GMOs come up. But Roundup Ready seeds have only been around for 15 years and they’re already ineffective. And in response we’re about to douse acres of land with the same herbicides we deemed too toxic to use just a decade ago? If this is progress, maybe those Luddites have a point.
But, wait. There’s more. We’re also facing a shortage of two of the key components of synthetic fertilizer — phosphorus and potassium. Influential — and somewhat prophetic — investor Jeremy Grantham took to the page of the journal Nature recently to express his concern over the issue (hat tip: Tom Philpott).
These two elements cannot be made, cannot be substituted, are necessary to grow all life forms, and are mined and depleted. It’s a scary set of statements. Former Soviet states and Canada have more than 70% of the potash. Morocco has 85% of all high-grade phosphates. It is the most important quasi-monopoly in economic history.
What happens when these fertilizers run out is a question I can’t get satisfactorily answered and, believe me, I have tried. There seems to be only one conclusion: their use must be drastically reduced in the next 20–40 years or we will begin to starve.
Um. Uh oh?
Peak Phosphorus is not a new topic — and it’s one that Grist has covered in the past. The fact that it has gotten the attention of the investment community suggests it might be time for the rest of us to start paying attention.
Instead, Big Ag seems to be replicating the pattern we’re seeing with the Republican Party. They seem to believe that more, better communication, not a reexamination of core beliefs, is all that’s required to adapt to a changing world.
The stalemate that occurred with the AC21 report is merely another symptom of this larger crisis of understanding and knowledge among those who control our food system. Farmers, however, know there’s a problem. And many might opt for alternatives if the USDA stood up and gave them a real choice. As one farmer who had turned to the new herbicides to save his failing genetically modified crops told the Star Tribune: “I don’t like seeing all this crap going on the land. But I am forced to do it to survive.”
Forced to poison the land to grow food? That’s not a choice anyone should have to make.
Tom Laskawy is a founder and executive director of the Food & Environment Reporting Network and a contributing writer at Grist covering food and agricultural policy. His writing has also appeared in The American Prospect, Slate, The New York Times, and The New Republic. Follow him on Twitter.