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

Abstract

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Notes

  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).

Abbreviations

AC21:

Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture

APHIS:

Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service

CFS:

Center for Food Safety

EA:

Environmental assessment

EFSA:

European Food Safety Authority

EIS:

Environmental impact statement

EU:

European Union

FONSI:

Finding of No Significant Impact

GE:

Genetically engineered

GMO:

Genetically modified organism

NEPA:

National Environmental Policy Act

NGO:

Non-governmental organization

NOP:

National Organic Program

NRC:

National Research Council

rBGH:

Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone

RR:

Roundup Ready®

USDA:

United States Department of Agriculture

References

  1. Altieri, M.A. 2005. The myth of coexistence: Why transgenic crops are not compatible with agroecologically based systems of production. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society 25(4): 361–371.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Binimelis, R. 2008. Coexistence of plants and coexistence of farmers: Is an individual choice possible? Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 21(5): 437–457.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Ceddia, M.G., M. Bartlett, C. De Lucia, and C. Perrings. 2011. On the regulation of spatial externalities: Coexistence between GM and conventional crops in the EU and the ‘newcomer principle’. The Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics 55: 126–143.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Center for Food Safety and 21 co-signatories. 2011. Correspondence to Tom Vilsack, US Secretary of Agriculture, regarding rulemaking on genetically engineered crops by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), dated 3 Aug.

  5. Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). 1995. Title 7, Part 372.

  6. Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). 2002. Title 7, Part 205.

  7. Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). 2005. Title 7, Part 340.

  8. Consumers Union. 2010. Organic food poll. Consumer Reports National Research Center #2010. http://greenerchoices.org/pdf/OrganicFood%20Poll_Public%20Release_Feb%202010.pdf. Accessed 18 Aug 2010.

  9. Deaton, B.J., and J.P. Hoehn. 2005. The social construction of production externalities in contemporary agriculture: Process versus product standards as the basis for defining “organic”. Agriculture and Human Values 22: 31–38.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Devos, Y., M. Demont, K. Dillen, D. Reheul, M. Kaiser, and O. Sanvido. 2009. Coexistence of genetically modified (GM) and non-GM crops in the European Union: A review. Agronomy for Sustainable Development 29: 11–30.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Dillon, M., and K. Hubbard. 2011. State of organic seed. Organic Seed Alliance. http://www.seedalliance.org/Publications/. Accessed 28 Nov 2011.

  12. DuPuis, E.M. 2000. Not in my body: rBGH and the rise of organic milk. Agriculture and Human Values 17: 285–295.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Ellstrand, Norman C. 2001. When transgenes wander, should we worry? Plant Physiology 125: 1543–1545.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Federal Register. 1986. Volume 51, Number 123 (26 June 1986).

  15. Federal Register. 1993. Volume 58, Number 60 (21 Mar 1993).

  16. Federal Register. 1997. Volume 62, Number 79 (24 Apr 1997).

  17. Federal Register. 2000. Volume 65, Number 246 (21 Dec 2000).

  18. Federal Register. 2004. Volume 69 Number 226 (24 Nov 2004).

  19. Federal Register. 2005. Volume 70, Number 122 (27 June 2005).

  20. Geertson Seed Farms, et al. v. Johanns, et al. No. C06-1075 CRB. N.D. Cal. Feb 2006.

  21. Geertson Seed Farms, et al. v. Johanns, et al. No. C06-01075 CRB, 2007 WL 518624. N.D. Cal. 13 Feb 2007.

  22. Hammon, B., C. Rinderle, and M. Franklin. 2006. Pollen movement from alfalfa seed production fields. Grand Junction: Colorado State University Cooperative Extension. http://wci.colostate.edu/Assets/pdf/Hammon.RRpollenflow.pdf. Accessed 30 Nov 2011.

  23. Klonsky, K. 2000. Forces impacting the production of organic food. Agriculture and Human Values 17: 233–243.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Levidow, L., and K. Boschert. 2008. Coexistence or contradiction? GM crops versus alternative agricultures in Europe. Geoforum 39: 174–190.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Lively, S. 2010. Personal communication. APHIS Biotechnology Regulatory Services. 21 July 2010.

  26. Lyson, T.A. 2002. Advanced agricultural biotechnologies and sustainable agriculture. Trends in Biotechnology 20: 5.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Marvier, M., and R. Van Acker. 2005. Can crop transgenes be kept on a leash? Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 3(2): 99–106.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Monsanto Co., et al. v. Geertson Seed Farms, et al, 130 S. Ct. 1133. 2010.

  29. National Research Council. 1989. Field testing genetically modified organisms: Framework for decision. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

    Google Scholar 

  30. National Research Council. 2002. Environmental effects of transgenic plants: The scope and adequacy of regulation. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

    Google Scholar 

  31. National Research Council. 2004. Biological confinement of genetically engineered organisms. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

    Google Scholar 

  32. Organic Trade Association. 2011. U.S. organic industry overview. http://www.ota.com/pics/documents/2011OrganicIndustrySurvey.pdf. Accessed 28 July 2012.

  33. PBS Online NewsHour. 2000. Food fight. March 7 interview between Gwen Ifill and Dan Glickman. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/business/jan-june00/food_3-7.html. Accessed 27 May 2009.

  34. Pollack, A. 2010. Judge revokes approval of modified sugar beets. New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/14/business/14sugar.html. Accessed 28 Nov 2011.

  35. Rieger, M.A., M. Lamond, C. Preston, et al. 2002. Pollen-mediated movement of herbicide resistance between commercial canola fields. Science 296: 2386–2388.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Rodgers, C.P. 2007. Coexistence or conflict? A European perspective on GMOs and the problem of liability. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society 27(3): 233–250.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Saskatchewan Organic Directorate. 2002. Organic farmers sue Monsanto and Aventis. http://www.saskorganic.com/oapf/news.html#pr-rel-8nov04. Accessed 24 May 2010.

  38. Schurman, R., and W.A. Munro. 2010. Fighting for the future of food. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

    Google Scholar 

  39. Sligh, M. 2002. Organics at the crossroads: The past and the future of the organic movement. In The fatal harvest reader: The tragedy of industrial agriculture, ed. A. Kimbrell, 272–282. Washington: Island Press.

    Google Scholar 

  40. Testbiotech. 2011. Reboot EFSA to safeguard independence. Press release, October 11. http://www.testbiotech.de/en/node/553. Accessed 2 Mar 2012.

  41. Union of Concerned Scientists. 2004. Gone to seed: Transgenic contaminants in the traditional seed supply. http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/science_and_impacts/impacts_genetic_engineering/gone-to-seed.html. Accessed 6 Aug 2010.

  42. US Department of Agriculture. 2000. Remarks as prepared for delivery by Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman on National Organic Standards. http://www.usda.gov/news/releases/2000/03/0073. Accessed 28 Nov 2011.

  43. US Department of Agriculture. 2010. Comments by Secretary Vilsack regarding availability of a final environmental impact statement (EIS) for Roundup Ready alfalfa. http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?contentidonly=true&contentid=2010/12/0666.xml. Accessed 30 Nov 2011.

  44. US Department of Agriculture, Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture (AC21). 2011. Meeting transcript from August 30. http://www.usda.gov/documents/Meeting%20Transcript%2030.doc. Accessed 30 Nov 2011.

  45. US Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). 2010a. Biotechnology regulatory services. http://www.aphis.usda.gov/biotechnology/brs_main.shtml. Accessed 3 Oct 2010.

  46. US Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). 2010b. Petitions for nonregulated status granted or pending by APHIS. http://www.aphis.usda.gov/biotechnology/not_reg.html. Accessed 25 Aug 2010.

  47. US Department of Agriculture. 2011. Information systems for biotechnology, National Biological Impact Assessment Program, cooperative state research, education, and extension service. http://www.nbiap.vt.edu/about-isb.aspx. Accessed 22 Aug 2011.

  48. US Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service (ERS). 2010. Adoption of genetically engineered crops in the U.S. http://www.ers.usda.gov/Data/BiotechCrops/. Accessed 3 Oct 2010.

  49. US Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service (ERS). 2008. Data sets: organic production. http://www.ers.usda.gov/Data/Organic/. Accessed 28 Nov 2011.

  50. US Department of Agriculture, National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS). 2006. Agricultural statistics 2006. http://www.nass.usda.gov/Publications/Ag_Statistics/2006/index.asp. Accessed 28 Nov 2011.

  51. US Department of Agriculture, Office of Inspector General (OIG). 2005. Audit Report: Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Controls over Issuance of Genetically Engineered Organism Release Permits. www.usda.gov/oig/webdocs/50601-08-TE.pdf. Accessed 28 Nov 2011.

  52. Whole Foods Market. 2003. One year after USDA organic standards are enacted more Americans are consuming organic food. http://wholefoodsmarket.com/pressroom/blog/2003/10/14/one-year-after-usda-organic-standards-are-enacted-more-Americans-are-consuming-organic-food/. Accessed 28 Nov 2011.

  53. Wargo, J. 2009. Green intelligence: Creating environments that protect human health. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgments

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

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Neva Hassanein.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

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). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-012-9394-6

Download citation

Keywords

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