Biotech crop insurance called a 'significant priority' for the agency

By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI

Capital Press

The USDA will continue seeking advice on genetic engineering from a committee that last year recommended a potential crop insurance program for farmers harmed by biotech crops.

The agency has renewed the charter of the Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture, or AC21, which consists of farmers, scientists, organic advocates, seed developers and others.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack is reviewing the committee's tentative proposal to launch a crop insurance pilot program.

The program could provide compensation to conventional and organic growers whose crops are pollinated by biotech genes.

Committee members had disagreements about the extent of economic losses from such unintended cross-pollination as well as who should bear the burden of paying for the compensation mechanism.

Vilsack is still preparing a response to the crop insurance recommendation but the issue is a "significant priority" for the agency, according to a USDA official.

He has not yet decided on the committee's new goal, the official said. Existing members will be eligible for re-appointment to the committee, with the expectation they will stay on if they want.

The biotech crop insurance idea is likely to get "wrapped up" in the broader debate over a new farm bill later in 2013, said Charles Benbrook, a committee member and research professor at Washington State University.

With the USDA making heavy crop insurance payments related to last year's drought, the concept may be a tough sell, Benbrook said. "That may be a difficult time to expand it to address a whole new area of risk."

Hopefully, the USDA's next assignment for the committee will be more conducive to compromise -- the issue of compensation was "one of the most unsettled and divisive questions out there," he said.

"We did a little better than kicking the can down the road, but not much better," Benbrook said.

Barry Bushue, committee member and president of the Oregon Farm Bureau, said he expects the committee to advise USDA on stewardship practices that can prevent unintentional cross-pollination.

"My assumption is we'll continue this talk about coexistence," he said.

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