Photo: Jon Schladen (flikr)
A spate of incidents has revived old tensions between conventional farmers and sustainability advocates.
Late last year, a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation investigation found that nearly half of organic-certified produce in Canada over a two-year period contained pesticide residue. The levels found on up to 8 percent of the samples were high enough to raise suspicion that the chemicals had been intentionally applied.
Then in January, the country’s food inspection agency admitted that it failed to report the violations to groups that certify organic products.
Last week in Australia, a state supreme court heard arguments in a fight between an organic farmer and his neighbor. The farmer lost his organic certification after genetically modified canola seeds from a conventional farm drifted onto his land and took root. He is suing for losses in a test case that has further galvanized opposing sides in an ongoing debate over the rights and responsibilities of neighboring farmers.
In 2010, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack issued an open letter calling for “a new paradigm of cooperation and coexistence” between organic and GM farmers, and pushed for alternatives to litigation. But organic farmers say the current rules tilt steeply toward farmers who use chemicals and grow GM crops.
“Right now, Secretary Vilsack talks about ‘coexistence’ with organic and conventional. It’s not working,” said Mark “Coach” Smallwood, executive director of the Rodale Institute.
“Who gets penalized? Not the guy who sprays the chemicals. There’s no penalty for him. But my product gets ‘contaminated’ and now I can’t sell it,” he said. “It’s just not right.”
U.S. organic farmers who get caught selling produce that was intentionally sprayed with chemicals pay stiff fines and lose their certification, which takes three years to recover on best behavior.
Smallwood said he’s never heard of a U.S. farmer losing certification because of wayward seeds or chemical drift, but the issue sheds light on an imbalance in agricultural policy.
“There’s a cost attached to contamination, whether it’s in the soil, water or air. And who pays for that cost? It’s our tax dollars. That’s what’s missing in the cost of chemical production.”
He added that aside from relocating, the only defense an organic farmer has against contamination is to coordinate with neighboring conventional farmers, to encourage them to skip spraying on high wind days, and to grow thick barriers on the edges of fields. To minimize the risk of contamination from wind-blown GM pollen, farmers can work together to stagger flowering times for similar crops.