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2-Plants: Can organic and biotech crops coexist?

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TITLE:  The Corn Next Door
        Can organic and biotech crops coexist?
SOURCE: The Scientist 19 (18): 34, by Amy Norton
DATE:   26 Sep 2005

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The Corn Next Door

In 2000, public officials in Boulder County, Colo., were faced with calls
from organic farmers, environmentalists, and others to ban genetically
modified (GM) crops. GM opponents worried that pollen drifting from
transgenic corn fields could "contaminate" their organic cousins.

County commissioners weren't comfortable with an outright ban, but they
decided to appoint a panel that would draw up a "good neighbor" policy to
help organic and GM growers peacefully coexist on the county's large
stretch of public land. Scientists at Colorado State University conducted
a pollen drift study and concluded that a buffer zone of 150 feet could
ensure a less-than-1% inadvertent, or adventitious, presence of GM pollen
or other materials in non-GM corn crops.

Those involved in forging the coexistence plan - which county officials
believe to be the first such effort in the United States - say things
have gone smoothly so far, with no disputes over buffer zones or GM-
tainted organic corn. It offers, they say, proof that organic and GM
farms can be good neighbors. "GMOs [genetically modified organisms] are
highly contentious here," Robert Alexander, an official with Boulder
County Parks and Open Space, says of the organic-friendly region.
"Coexistence is possible. We're doing it."


But there's no consensus on the necessary ingredients for coexistence,
and a panel at the June Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO)
conference in Philadelphia took up the issue. Many scientists and farmers
believe coexistence is a fairly simple matter, achievable through
neighborly communication and a certain level of tolerance for the
adventitious presence of GMOs in organic crops. Others contend that
organic and non-GM conventional growers are unfairly burdened with the
responsibility for protecting their crops from what they regard as

At issue is organic certification, which is bestowed by 56 US Department
of Agriculture (USDA)-accredited certifying agents across the country,
and for which some consumers will pay a premium. These organizations
ensure that growers follow national standards for organic production and

"We are not categorically opposed to the use of biotech in agriculture,"
says Mark Lipson, an organic grower and policy director of the Organic
Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) in Santa Cruz, Calif. But, he adds, US
regulators have "taken coexistence for granted," and he sees a need for
protections for non-GM growers. Lipson argues that biotech firms should
be held liable for economic injury to organic farmers when seed
commingling or pollen drift allow GMOs into their crops. According to
USDA standards, organic farmers should not lose their certification due
to adventitious presence of GMOs, as long as they take "reasonable steps"
to prevent such commingling.

However, that rule is murky, and a few farmers in a 2002 OFRF survey said
they lost certification due to GMO presence, according to Bob Scowcroft,
the group's executive director. That survey, of 1,034 US organic farmers,
also found that 8% reported some "economic impact" in the last growing
season that they attributed to GM farming - the cost of testing their
crops for GMOs, for example, or loss of organic markets due to actual
contamination or buyers' fears of it. Though that figure is small,
Scowcroft says, the survey results are a sign of a looming problem, as
concern about GM contamination was a nonissue in earlier OFRF surveys.

Some state legislatures apparently feel the same way. Bills were floated
in several states this year that would hold seed companies liable for
economic damages to non-GM farmers whose crops were found to contain
GMOs, including a measure in California that will be taken up again in
2006 and one in Vermont that is still alive.


But Drew Kershen, a law professor at the University of Oklahoma, says
such measures lack legal footing. It's the organic farmers who are aiming
for a price premium, he says, and to hold biotech firms responsible for
their market loss would be a "significant reversal of the laws as they
have been." Kershen says coexistence essentially boils down to organic
buyers having some tolerance for adventitious presence of GMOs. Organic
certification, he points out, covers the processes growers use, and does
not guarantee a "pure" final product.

Kershen points to a coexistence study by the Swiss Federal Office for
Agriculture, which concluded that a roughly 160-foot separation between
corn fields and 160 to 1,300 feet between oilseed rape, depending on the
species, should keep the detectable levels of GMOs in those crops below
0.5%. If buyers will accept such levels, Kershen says, then coexistence
should be relatively easy to achieve.

Fred Yoder, a past president of the National Corn Growers Association,
says the key to coexistence is quite literally to be neighborly; when
farmers communicate with each other, they can, for instance, vary their
planting dates to avoid the issue of pollen drift. "We can handle (pollen
drift) a lot better than people think," explains Yoder, noting that he
and his own organic neighbor have a "great relationship." He says, "We
can coexist just fine."

For less neighborly sorts, though, conventional corn breeding may soon
lend a hand in the form of hybrid that shuns all pollen but its own. The
small Nebraska firm Hoegemeyer Hybrids is set to market the corn, dubbed
PuraMaize, for the 2006 growing season. Tom Hoegemeyer, who stresses that
he is far from anti-GMO, says he saw a need for such a "niche" product
when consumers, particularly in Europe, reacted negatively to the advent
of transgenic crops in the 1990s.

The corn strain takes advantage of natural traits seen rarely in certain
corn varieties native to Central America. Scientists have long known
there are genes that affect corn pollination, Hoege-meyer notes, and
developing the discriminating corn was "just a matter of perseverance."

Rex Bernardo, an agronomy professor at the University of Minnesota in St.
Paul, agrees that PuraMaize could help GM and organic corn crops live
side-by-side, and could help growers in exporting to GM-wary markets in
Europe and Japan, for instance. He points out, though, that cross-
contamination can occur at several points between field and supermarket -
via equipment, for instance, or at local elevators that take grain from
many sources.


Coexistence could get thornier as the business of biopharmaceuticals
takes off. Sacramento, Calif.-based Ventria Bioscience, which is using
rice to grow lactoferrin and lysozyme proteins to be used in products for
diarrhea and dehydration, found that opposition could come from
unexpected places when beer giant Anheuser-Busch objected to the firm's
plans to grow its rice in Missouri.

Citing concerns that the pharmaceutical rice could contaminate commercial
rice grown in the region, which the brewer uses to flavor its beer, the
beer giant threatened to boycott Missouri rice, causing a stir among
local farmers. This was despite the fact that unlike corn and canola,
rice is self-pollinating, and despite the company's closed production
system, Scott Deeter, Ventria's CEO, points out.

In April, Ventria and Anheuser-Busch struck a "compromise" in which the
former agreed to plant 120 miles away from Missouri's rice belt. But that
was too late for Ventria to get the necessary permits to grow its rice in
the state this year. Instead, the company planted in North Carolina, on a
few acres where it already had USDA approval.

But the company is still moving its headquarters to Maryville, Mo., and
plans to plant its rice in the state next year. Deeter downplays any
opposition the company has gotten from local farmers and other citizens -
first in California, and now in Missouri - and says the Missouri Farm
Bureau is "one of our biggest supporters." And he says the Anheuser-Busch
conflict is an example of the neighborly cooperation everyone agrees is
necessary for coexistence. "On the bright side," he says, "we did reach
an agreement."


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