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AC21 committee meeting this week, report to be issued after election

By JERRY HAGSTROM

The Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture appointed by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to try to resolve conflicts between producers using genetically modified seeds and other producers is meeting today and Tuesday in Washington to try to reach consensus, but its final report will not be released until after the election.

“This is the critical meeting,” Michael Schechtman, a Vilsack aide who serves as executive secretary of the committee, said at the beginning of today’s session.

“We will need to complete all substantive work on the report to get it finalized this fall,” he said. “It will not be possible for us to hold another plenary session. There will have to be much give and take and much big picture thinking.”

But even though several months ago Vilsack directed the committee to try to come up with a mechanism to compensate organic growers for the unintended presence of genetically engineered material in their crops, and although the committee appears headed to recommend a subsidized crop insurance program to deal with the risk of contamination, today it was clear there are substantial disagreements within the committee due to basic conflicts between the biotech and organic industries.

The committee is scheduled to finish its deliberations late Tuesday and will not meet again in person. USDA staff will write the report and send it to committee members on October 23, Schechtman said.

Members will have until November 8 to reply to USDA whether they will “join the consensus,” join it with comments, not join or not join it with comments.

The draft report under consideration (see link below) was published on the USDA website, and Schechtman initially said today that the October 23 document would also be public. He later reversed himself, saying that it would be circulated only to members of the committee because it would not be proper to make the report public before it goes to the secretary.

The version that goes to the secretary will include any comments from the members.

Schechtman stressed that time is of the essence because President Barack Obama’s first term of office will be up and that the committee was created at the discretion of the secretary. He told the members that the final report will not please everyone and that they should consider whether they could join in the consensus if it is a report they can live with, even if it does not answer all their questions.

Some members expressed displeasure that the draft report had been published on the website, because it had raised concerns among farmers.

“The toughest thing is that your phone rings off the hook,” said North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring. “We never had a chance to work it out internally before it became public.”

Goehring suggested that perhaps the draft report had been posted because some of the discussion had not gone in a direction that some groups wanted, but Schechtman said it had to be public because the committee is a federal advisory committee.

Although the committee has been formed to focus on compensation, Angela Olsen, a senior adviser and associate general counsel for Pioneer Hi-Bred, a DuPont business, said “We have seen no evidence of economic losses to date, therefore it is premature to have a discussion about a compensation mechanism.”

The draft includes three options involving crop insurance — one that would direct the secretary to determine if there are losses and, if so, develop a crop insurance mechanism, a second that would recommend a crop insurance pilot program, and a third that would involve evaluation of the economic data and establishment of a crop insurance program in a region of the country where losses have occurred.

“I can support Option One but I want it clear it is a compromise,” Olsen said.

Laura Batcha, executive vice president of the Organic Trade Association, said she could support Option Two.

But Marilyn Howell Martens, an organic farmer from Penn Yan, N.Y., said “Organic farmers don’t want compensation mechanisms. They don’t want to buy insurance. “

Instead, she said, they want assurances that their crops will not be contaminated.

Some members suggested that technical agreements between the companies and the farmers could include provisions for consultation among farmers, but it would probably be impossible to enforce those provisions.

Melissa Hughes, the general counsel and director of government affairs for CROPP Cooperative/Organic Valley Family of Farms, said that the compensation mechanism could be a way to avoid conflicts among farmers.

Russell Redding, the dean of agriculture and environmental sciences at Delaware Valley College, who chairs the committee, said he thought the group had settled on crop insurance as a mechanism at previous meeting.

“We are some miles before tomorrow afternoon to get through this discussion,” Redding said. “I am a little anxious.”

The committee was scheduled to hear testimony from the public, hold more discussions today and have dinner together tonight before concluding their discussions on Tuesday.

Vilsack appointed the committee, known as AC21, in an attempt to deal with the conflicts that have arisen in rural communities where some farmers use biotech seeds while nearby organic farmers fear that the seeds or plants from those seeds will invade their fields and cause their crops to lose the certified organic status that earns them a premium in the marketplace.

Organic producers said that nonorganic producers should be required to have buffer zones so that the organic fields would not be infiltrated with nonorganic seeds and products. Vilsack initially seemed to go along with that view, but did not follow through with official policy along that line.

Farm lobbyists said that State Department officials were opposed to required buffer strips because they would signal that biotech products are unsafe and undermine positions that U.S. negotiators have taken with other countries for decades.

A State Department official attended the meeting today.