In its fourth plenary meeting in Washington, D.C., USDA’s Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture (AC21) continued discussions on coexistence of modern agricultural practices including conventional, biotechnology and organic farming methods. The committee was originally established in 2003 and, under its charter, is charged providing guidance to USDA on pressing individual issues, identified by the Office of the Secretary, related to the application of biotechnology in agriculture.

Agriculture Secretary Vilsack revived the committee last year to discuss the basic question of whether organic growers should receive financial compensation for pollen drift from genetically engineered (GE) crops. The specific questions charged to the committee are:

1. What types of compensation mechanisms, if any, would be appropriate to address economic losses by farmers in which the value of their crops is reduced by unintended presence of GE material(s)?

2. What would be the eligibility standard for a loss and what tools and triggers (e.g. tolerances, testing protocols, etc.) would be needed to verify and measure such losses and determine if claims are compensable?

3. In addition to the above, what other actions would be appropriate to bolster or facilitate coexistence among different agricultural production systems in the United States?

The current AC21 membership is split about evenly among organic and conventional/biotech interests, and discussions have been lively. Although there has been consensus on some issues such as education and outreach, community cooperation, and mitigation, there are major contentions on the basic concerns. The non-organic members insist that there must be some compelling documentation of such economic losses while the organic faction wants to discuss the mechanisms for compensation.

The AC21 chairman, Dr. Russell Redding, dean of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, Delaware Valley College, is planning to have a draft report circulated to the committee members by July 30 in time for input for the next plenary meeting on Aug. 27-28. He hopes to complete the report for submission to the Secretary this fall.