Confronting coexistence in the United States: organic agriculture, genetic engineering, and the case of Roundup Ready® alfalfa


In agriculture, the principle of coexistence refers to a condition where different primary production systems can exist in the vicinity of each other, and can be managed in such a way that they affect each other as little as possible. Coexistence policies aim to ensure that farmers are able to freely grow the crops they choose—be they genetically engineered (GE), non-GE conventional, or organic. In the United States (US), the issue of coexistence has very recently come into sharp relief with the introduction of Roundup Ready® (RR) alfalfa, a landmark court decision in 2007 (Geertson v. Johanns), and subsequent governmental actions, including the first Environmental Impact Statement on a GE crop. By contrast, in 2003 the European Union (EU) created a policy to manage coexistence and to address economic harms that may be caused by contamination. We briefly review the EU framework as an instructive resource. This policy analysis then looks at the US organic industry and its standards with respect to GE before turning to the case of RR alfalfa. With a focus on the field trial stage and on environmental assessments prior to market approval, the case reveals numerous problems in the existing regulatory framework as it pertains to coexistence and prevention of contamination of organic products with GE material. The paper concludes with specific policy recommendations for creating a more robust coexistence policy in the US.

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  1. 1.

    In the context of agricultural biotechnology, the term “conventional” refers to non-organic farmers who do not use GE crops.

  2. 2.

    Although the EFSA was intended to be independent, several non-governmental organizations in Europe have seriously questioned the agency’s objectivity and apparent ties with the biotechnology industry (see e.g., Testbiotech 2011).

  3. 3.

    As one reviewer pointed out, this threshold does not reflect the organic sector’s demand for zero tolerance of GE material.

  4. 4.

    These included the Center for Food Safety, Western Organization of Resource Councils, Dakota Resource Council, Sierra Club, Cornucopia Institute, National Family Farm Coalition, and Beyond Pesticides.

  5. 5.

    This case is pending at the time of this writing (Center for Food Safety, et al. v. Vilsack, et al. No. CV11 1310. N.D. Cal. Mar. 2011).

  6. 6.

    The Geertson case was closely followed by a similar lawsuit over GE sugar beets (Center for Food Safety, et al. v. Connor No. 08-CV-0484. N.D. Cal. Jan. 2008).



Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture


Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service


Center for Food Safety


Environmental assessment


European Food Safety Authority


Environmental impact statement


European Union


Finding of No Significant Impact


Genetically engineered


Genetically modified organism


National Environmental Policy Act


Non-governmental organization


National Organic Program


National Research Council


Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone


Roundup Ready®


United States Department of Agriculture


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We are sincerely grateful for the helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper made by the editor, three anonymous reviewers, and several colleagues.

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Correspondence to Neva Hassanein.

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Hubbard, K., Hassanein, N. Confronting coexistence in the United States: organic agriculture, genetic engineering, and the case of Roundup Ready® alfalfa. Agric Hum Values 30, 325–335 (2013) doi:10.1007/s10460-012-9394-6

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  • Agricultural biotechnology
  • Coexistence
  • Genetic engineering
  • Organic agriculture
  • Coordinated Framework for Biotechnology
  • Roundup Ready® alfalfa