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Vilsack floats organic fund

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Growers could receive compensation if biotech genes contaminate organic crops


BY JERRY HAGSTROM


For the Capital Press


WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said it might be possible to create an insurance fund to compensate organic growers who believe they have been hurt by the drift of genetically modified seed into their fields.


"It's not about fault. It's about making somebody whole," Vilsack said while answering questions after a speech to the Organic Trade Association on April 6. He emphasized that the insurance idea is not a formal proposal, but something he would like the industry to consider as it tries to address the fact that biotechnology is here to stay.


He did not provide details or say who would pay for such a fund.


Appearing before the organic industry was for Vilsack a little bit like entering the lion's den because the organic producers have been strong supporters of the Obama administration, but have been upset with him since USDA announced that genetically engineered alfalfa could be planted without the restrictions the organic industry had urged.


Vilsack said that using the Plant Protection Act to try to address nonscience-based issues, which some organic advocates had suggested, "is very difficult" because the authority to use it for economic issues "is not there."


Vilsack brought up an insurance fund after an OTA member asked whether Vilsack could envision a day when organic farmers who believe they have lost money because they cannot sell products that are considered contaminated could be compensated. Vilsack said that "there is a legitimate argument" about whether it would be possible to "precisely" determine which neighbor's field might have provided the contaminated seed.


Vilsack said he realized that some producers would like the seed companies to pay -- a statement that was greeted by applause. But Vilsack said that getting the seed companies to pay "may be difficult to do."


Organic production is a vital part of his strategy to revive rural America, Vilsack said. "Organic producers are very entrepreneurial in nature," he said. "They're in a position to create value-added products that provide a wealth of opportunities in rural America."


But Vilsack also said that farmers using genetically modified seeds "are fundamentally sound folks," and urged the organic producers to get together with conventional farmers and work out their differences. There may be a disagreement about whether biotechnology should continue, Vilsack said, but said that in his view it will continue.


Vilsack noted that the Obama administration had put organics into the Agriculture Department's strategic plan, established an organic office with its own deputy administrator, and invested $39 million in research and development on projects such as novel cover crop mixtures -- which reduces loss of nitrogen -- and organic weed control. It is using another $32.5 million in federal money for indirect support for organics through farmers' markets and other programs. It also put $50 million in environmental quality incentives program money into 1,400 projects benefiting the organic industry.


The Organic Trade Association received Vilsack politely.


One organic advocate said that the industry appreciates the Obama administration's organic effort, but would like to figure out how to strengthen its position within the administration when officials have to deal with the State Department and other agencies that have argued that the U.S. government must take a strong position in favor of biotechnology to protect the traditional U.S. advocacy of science-based decision making in trade relations.



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