Coexistence possible for all crops

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber will suggest legislation to create a framework that will allow conventional and GMO crops to coexist. The devil will be in the details.

Aides to Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber say he will propose legislation later this month to facilitate the coexistence of conventional, organic and genetically modified crops within the state.

It’s a promising announcement, but unfortunately short on details.

Producers of Oregon’s high-value specialty seed crops and organic producers have legitimate concerns about the potential for cross-pollination with GMO crops. Farmers who grow, or who may in the future want to grow, GMO crops must be allowed to produce crops approved by the federal government.

They are not mutually exclusive objectives.

During a special session late in 2013, the Oregon legislature pre-empted most local governments from restricting genetically modified crops at Kitzhaber’s urging. The bill was part of a legislative package that also included corporate tax increases and was known as the “grand bargain,” which the House and Senate leaderships worked out in advance with Kitzhaber.

The idea was to avoid a patchwork of county regulation, and to give the Oregon Department of Agriculture time to work out a reasonable scheme that addresses legitimate concerns of organic and conventional growers of high-value crops who fear contamination from genetically engineered pollen.

The governor then appointed a task force to frame the controversy over genetically modified organisms and inform lawmakers’ decisions on possible statewide legislation later.

The task force consisted of stakeholders representing all camps, who predictably found it difficult to agree on much except there needs to be more clarity in the role of the state in regulating production of genetically modified crops.

Clarity is in the eye of the beholder.

The state loses any power to restrict where genetically modified crops can be grown once they are deregulated by USDA.

Proponents of stronger regulation say the state could pass legislation giving the ODA the authority to establish restrictions on where and how GMO crops could be grown. They point to a mapping system used by seed growers in the Willamette Valley.

They would also like a mechanism for compensating farmers if their crops are cross-pollinated.

Supporters of GMO crops favor a more voluntary approach. They say neighbors should be able to work out the particulars among themselves with minimal regulation.

We prefer as soft a touch as possible. But once the Legislature is involved, we’re past the point where neighbors can reach accommodations. The issue has become too polarizing.

We still have hope that common sense can prevail to the benefit of all in agriculture. Farmers who grow conventional or organic crops can be protected without denying others the choice of growing genetically modified crops already approved, or capitalizing on the opportunities that lie in the next advancement.

Read the original article on Capital Press here.

Puzzling Truths In Labeling

Sharon Davidson, 
registered seed technologist and president of Agri Seed Testing, Inc.

The issue of seed testing uniformity is a complex and convoluted problem with many players and facets involved. There’s thousands of seed species, nearly a hundred labs, multiple testing methods, governance and compliance.

After having been in the seed testing industry for 34 years, I’ve seen just about everything. While I applaud the Association of Official Seed Analysts, the Society of Commercial Seed Technologists and the American Seed Trade Association for under-taking this issue, I caution that it’s not just about the diversity of seed species and testing methods.

From my perspective, the bigger issue is whose “truth” does a labeler use? But in reality, it doesn’t matter if a labeler chooses to use test results from Lab A versus Lab C because it’s the regulatory lab’s test results that are the “truth.” Right or wrong, perhaps more examples of wrong than right, the regulatory lab has the last say, and the company that printed the label either has to over label with that “truth” or remove the seed for sale, in addition to paying a fine.

“The bigger issue is whose ‘truth’ does a labeler use?”
— Sharon DavidsonTesting Within Tolerance

Testing Within Tolerance

A recent example is a label developed from a blend sheet. Regulatory picked up a box to test and found that the percent annual ryegrass was out of tolerance, which led to the issuance of a stop sale. This same sample was sent to the federal laboratory in North Carolina and a private lab only to find that the federal laboratory, the private laboratory and the seed tag were well within tolerance. It was the regulatory lab that was out of tolerance.

When questioned, the regulatory lab reported that it followed the method in the AOSA Rules for Testing Seeds handbook, however the technician only tested 200 seeds instead of 400. This leads me to wonder what other short cuts are taken? Is there a dark room for fluorescence testing? How old is the blue black light used? Is the media Whatmans No. 1 filter paper? But all of these questions are irrelevant because the regulatory lab is always right.

Again, whose “truth” should be used for labeling because by the time all this was discovered, the seed was mislabeled to meet the stop sale demand and sold out.

The concept of achieving uniformity among seed testing laboratories is admirable but I believe a critical piece of the puzzle all comes back to dollars — funding for state mandated regulatory labs. In my conversations with folks from state mandated regulatory labs, I hear “we can’t do that; we don’t have funding, space or personnel.” While they might not have the funding, space or personnel, their reports are used to issue a stop sale. And that is a lot of money and in some cases results in the loss of a sales window.

I agree that there needs to be some kind of a “fix” to the whole system. There needs to be a way to remove regulatory authority from labs that are constantly out of tolerance. There needs to be a mechanism by which all labs are held accountable for their laboratory results. Besides those labs accredited by the International Seed Testing Association, there is currently not a mechanism in place. There needs to be a way to tease out the true quality of a lot when a discrepancy occurs instead of stop sale, re-label and fining a company.

What about sampling? Several organizations have sampling protocols, all of which include a trier that reaches at least the middle of the container, yet time and again, photographic proof that 6-inch thief triers are still being used. A test result is only as good as the sample provided.

What about the companies that purposefully shop tests? They know which labs do not find noxious weeds, always get higher purities and the highest germination. There are “go to” labs when the risk of a fine is less than the profit margin they stand to gain. Buy on one lab test, sell on another test is common practice in commerce.

There are a lot of pieces to this multi-dimensional puzzle, and uniformity is just one piece of one dimension.

Read the original article on Seed World here.

Governor to propose Oregon GMO bill

E.J. Harris/EO Media Group Gov. John Kitzhaber talks to the editorial staff at the East Oregonian in June in Pendleton. Kitzhaber
A bill related to genetic engineering in Oregon will be introduced by Gov. John Kitzhaber in the upcoming legislative session now that a key task force report is done.

SALEM — Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber will propose a legislative fix in mid-January aimed at fostering coexistence among biotech, conventional and organic crops.

Details of the proposal haven’t yet been disclosed and the legislative language will likely be amended before an actual bill is introduced, said Richard Whitman, the governor’s natural resources policy director.

“The anticipation is there will be more conversation among stakeholders before we finalize the bill,” Whitman said.

A task force on genetically modified organisms appears to have helped Kitzhaber decide on a course of action.

In 2013, the Oregon legislature pre-empted most local governments from restricting genetically modified crops at Kitzhaber’s urging.

The governor then appointed a task force to frame the controversy over genetically modified organisms and inform lawmakers’ decisions on possible statewide legislation.

The task force’s recently completed report does not make any policy recommendations but lays out the points of contention between critics and proponents of genetically engineered crops.

However, its members did agree that more clarity is needed about the state’s role in regulating GMOs and how it diverges from federal authority.

The main question now is what measures Kitzhaber or state lawmakers will put forward to prevent unwanted cross-pollination among these crops or if farmers can agree on a voluntary system to avoid such gene flow.

“All eyes are going to be on the legislature and what the governor is planning to do,” said Ivan Maluski, executive director of Friends of Family Farms, which wants stronger biotech regulation. “This task force marks the beginning of the process, not the end.”

One subject of debate will probably be the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s “control area” authority over biotech crops, said Maluski.

Currently, ODA can restrict where genetically engineered crops are planted as long as the USDA retains jurisdiction over them, but the state agency believes it loses that power once the crop is deregulated by federal officials.

State legislation could establish that ODA may still create or retain “control areas” even after USDA lifts its own restrictions on biotech crops, said Maluski.

For example, such state control areas could require biotech farmers to maintain “isolation distances” to mitigate the risk of cross-pollination with non-GMOs, he said.

“It’s going to be on a case-by-case basis, as it should be,” Maluski said.

Another concept involves compensating organic and conventional growers if their crops are contaminated by pollen from biotech plants, said Chris Schreiner, executive director of Oregon Tilth, an organic certification agency.

There should be a way to compensate non-GMO farmers for damages from cross-pollination that wouldn’t require them to buy insurance policies, he said.

Proponents of biotechnology say farmers who grow biotech, conventional and organic crops can work out their differences without interference from the government.

“Farmers have learned to coexist for years,” said Paulette Pyle, grass roots director for Oregonians for Food and Shelter, an agribusiness industry group.

Decades ago, a conflict between cherry growers and wheat farmers over drift from 2,4-D herbicides threatened to spur legislation or erupt into litigation, but neighbors were ultimately able to resolve the issue through communication, Pyle said.

The potential for biotech varieties to pollinate organic crops isn’t actually a problem under USDA organic rules, which regulate farm practices but don’t set up standards for genetic purity, she said.

“The organic folks have put themselves in that market box,” Pyle said. “They can advertise their product any way they want, but they’ve got to accept responsibility.”

Bills that would increase government oversight of biotech crops would actually impede co-existence by limiting crop choices for farmers, said Greg Loberg, manager of the West Coast Beet Seed Co.

“It sounds threatening,” he said. “There will be winners and losers in a situation where government intervention occurs through legislation.”

Voluntary coexistence measures for biotech, conventional and organic crops would be preferable to those mandated by regulators, he said.

For example, seed growers in Oregon’s Willamette Valley are already able to reduce the chances of cross-pollination among related crops through a voluntary mapping system, Loberg said.

“It’s not a broken system,” he said. “It’s quite functional.”

Schreiner of Oregon Tilth said a mapping system is one possibility for co-existence but he’s skeptical that it would be effective without regulatory oversight.

“The voluntary system we don’t see as having a high likelihood of success due to the lack of incentive for GE producers to participate,” he said.

Read the original article on Capital Press here.