Committee 'wrestled with identifying and quantifying actual economic losses'
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
A committee advising the USDA on biotechnology has drafted several potential mechanisms to compensate organic and conventional farmers affected by contamination from transgenic crops.
Committee members will soon meet to hammer out details before the final report is submitted to the USDA in December, as there are disagreements over the need for compensation and who will pay for it.
The Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture is scheduled to have a last face-to-face meeting on Aug. 27-28 in Washington, D.C., before its findings on compensation are turned over to the USDA.
According to a draft version of the report, the committee has "wrestled with identifying and quantifying actual economic losses" from genetically engineered crops cross-pollinating with organic or conventional ones.
"Members of the AC21 are not in agreement about the extent to which a systemic problem exists and whether there is enough data to warrant an appropriate compensation mechanism to address it," the draft report said.
At the request of USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, the committee did evaluate the pros and cons of three possible mechanisms:
* A compensation fund that's paid into by biotech developers, farmers or the "entire food and feed production chain." While some committee members preferred this option, others felt the burden would be unfairly distributed and that the system would imply biotech crops are unsafe.
* A risk retention group in which farmers at risk of economic losses from cross-pollination with transgenic crops will join to provide self-insurance. The disadvantage of this system was that people who contribute to cross-pollination wouldn't pay for compensation.
* Crop insurance similar to existing programs in which the farmer and the federal government share in the cost of premiums. The advantage was that this system would be a "familiar tool" that could rely on existing governing structures.
In the report's proposed recommendations, the crop insurance model was seen as the most feasible. The committee suggested several ways to implement that option, such as initiating a pilot program.
To enact any type of compensation mechanism, there would need to be a threshold to determine whether a farmer has suffered injury, said Charles Benbrook, a committee member and chief scientist for The Organic Center nonprofit research group.
"There has to be a number to define when payments will possibly be made or when they aren't eligible," said Benbrook.
Roughly half the committee was inclined to recognize 0.9 percent transgenic content as the threshold, he said.
A permissible level must be established because no testing can verify zero transgenic content.
"I'm hoping we'll make enough progress so that there will be a bit more specificity in the recommendations," Benbrook said.
The committee wants to overcome as many differences as it can, though the ultimate conclusions will be drawn by Vilsack, said Barry Bushue, a committee member and president of the Oregon Farm Bureau.
"That will be entirely out of our control," he said.