Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has spent the past several months playing Solomon, seeking to split the difference between farmers who want to grow Roundup Ready alfalfa and organic growers who say the crop puts their livelihood at risk.
USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service recently completed a court-ordered environmental impact statement on Roundup Ready alfalfa. APHIS found that genetically modified alfalfa is not a crop pest, meaning it poses no threat of contaminating other crops.
APHIS environmental impact statements normally offer two options for the secretary to consider: full deregulation of a crop, or continued regulation.
This time, APHIS also proffered a third option that would have prohibited the planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa by approximately 20 percent of U.S. farmers (mostly in the West), placed some restrictions on others, and no restrictions on the remaining growers.
Although Vilsack seemed to favor that option as a way to address the concerns of organic farmers, he rightly decided for full deregulation.
Selecting the third option would have put USDA in conflict with the Obama administration's often-stated policy that its regulations would be based on the best available science, as determined by the regulators, not political pressure brought by special interest groups.
The administration could not contend that its regulations will be based on science, and then ignore its own science. It could not carve out an exception for a relatively small group of organic alfalfa growers in this case, then later refuse to carve out exceptions for farmers and ranchers inconvenienced by environmental regulations in other cases.
Vilsack is correct when he says that farmers who grow genetically modified crops and those who don't must find ways to co-exist. While the federal government can play a role in encouraging cooperation and co-existence, it will achieve neither by establishing large geographic production zones in which some crops can be grown, and in which others are prohibited. Government regulation should not deny some farmers access to technology that the government has determined to be safe.
Organic growers, and conventional farmers who wish only to grow non-modified crops, have every right to make a buck by providing an unadulterated product to their buyers. Farmers also have the right to take the economic advantages offered by approved genetically modified crops. In the absence of any actual damage, the first group can't exercise its rights by prohibiting the second from exercising its right. By the same token, the second group must take responsibility if its actions actually damage the other.
It should be something that good neighbors can work out among themselves, and less-than-cooperative neighbors can work out with the help of local courts and existing tort law.