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Pundit’s Mailbag — Opposing Views On GMO/Organic Issue

Our piece, CCOF Opposition To GMOs Outweighs Commitment To National Standards, brought several responses including one from CCOF itself and another from an advocacy organization opposed to GMOs.

Both make the same claim: That because no Federal regulation exists on where farmers can plant GMO crops, states and localities should be free to regulate this issue:

I’m writing in response to the Pundit’s comments about CCOF’s position on GMOs. Contrary to the Pundit’s implication of a double standard, I believe that CCOF’s position very clearly supports a matter of importance to organic farmers and consumers and does not conflict or “outweigh” our commitment to the national organic standards.

Since no federal or state regulations exist to regulate GMOs in outdoor plantings, we believe that the existing city and county GMO bans and moratoria should stand. The federal government has decided that most GMOs used in food crops do not require regulation. Here in California, there are no current state regulations on GMOs in crops or foods. Without regulation, organic producers face potential contamination and resulting economic losses due to market rejection of their products. Until there is adequate federal regulation, farmers and consumers must have the right to seek state and local level regulations to protect their farms and food. CCOF has been working with other groups in California to create uniform state-wide regulations. Therefore, we feel it’s imperative to oppose federal preemption of local GMO regulations.

We fully support uniform federal organic standards and would oppose local regulations that would enact stricter organic standards, should such regulations be proposed. The existing National Organic Program provides consistent standards that consumers can rely on — the sort of regulation that is completely lacking around GMOs. This is not a contradiction to our position on “local rules”.

Thank you for allowing me to clarify CCOF’s position on GMOs.

— Peggy Miars
Executive Director
Santa Cruz, California

You have it wrong re: CCOF’s stand on GMO “uniformity.” Since there is, at present, no national regulation to protect organic farmers, food companies and consumers from contamination via GMOs, CCOF is simply pointing out that it is absurd for the federal government to pre-empt rules that localities have adopted to protect their organic citizens’ rights. This is not a suggestion that local rules should pre-empt federal ones, but that local rules must be allowed in the face of certain risk and in the absence of any federal standards.

In fact, USDA recently admitted that even experimental plantings of GMOs will contaminate natural crops (including, of course, the potential for contamination of organic crops). This, they admit, is inevitable even from imported GMO crop varieties that have not been reviewed for approval by US regulators. Their recent proposed new guidance for GE field tests states (p. 37, I’m happy to forward the document, if you really want to read a lengthy USDA regulatory filing) that USDA has “… been aware for some time that the occasional detection of regulated material [i.e., GMOs] in commercial crop seeds is a potential outcome of field tests conducted under experimental protocols generally used for notifications. This is due to cross pollination and also commingling from shared equipment and facilities….In addition, new incidents will inevitably result from the importation of seeds and commodities from countries where such material has been fully approved but has not completed all U.S. reviews.”

Since USDA admits that contamination is inevitable, and yet refuses to adopt any regulations to limit or eliminate contamination, localities have no choice but to adopt their own rules.

— Charles Margulis
Center for Environmental Health
Center for Food Safety
Oakland, California

We certainly appreciate both Ms. Miars’ and Mr. Margulis’ comments. Here at the Pundit, we pride ourselves on being open to different perspectives as we try to think hard about every issue, and we value the contribution these letters represent.

To the extent that anyone was confused by our piece, we are happy to allow Ms. Miars to set the record straight.

Yet there strikes us as something highly disingenuous about this argument. After all, if Congress passed a law stating that farmers planting a GMO crop must leave a 12-inch buffer around the edge of their farm, thus enacting a uniform Federal standard, is there even one person who believes, in light of this new Federal standard, that Ms. Miars and Mr. Margulis would immediately endorse the proposal to forbid states and localities from pre-empting Federal law?

Of course not. They would simply say that the Federal standard is inadequate and thus we need to allow states and localities to pass more adequate laws.

To put it clearly, CCOF is using the lack of a Federal law to excuse its expediency.

The fact is that not to decide is to decide, and the decision the Federal government has made is to create an approval process that GMO seed must go through and then, once approved, not place restrictions on where it can be planted.

There are substantive arguments for why the Federal government should consider such regulation. We are well aware that drift could reduce the value of an organic crop. That is an important argument for why the Federal government should restrict GMO plantings, but the Federal government has elected not to do so. The current Federal standard is unrestricted planting of approved GMO seed.

Traditionally, the position has been that open field agriculture is agriculture exposed to the elements — and that includes non-organic elements. If a house is next to a farm and the house burns down, the wind might blow the ashes — both organic and non-organic — over the neighboring soil. Drift in agriculture is common, and if a farmer wants to insulate his crop from drift, the burden has traditionally been that he has to take those steps, such as adding buffer zones.

That CCOF and other organic advocates would like the government to switch the burden for fighting drift to the GMO grower is both understandable and predictable.

Having failed, to date, in that effort, the issue is now different. The issue is national uniformity. This particular issue is an important issue to CCOF, so since it has been unable to achieve its goals nationally, it would like to be able to get state and local laws it likes and disrupt the national marketing of GMO seed.

Our point was simply that what is good for the goose is good for the gander, and if you accept the position in interstate commerce that when you don’t like the present state of Federal Law, the proper thing to do is allow state and local preemption of the national status quo, you are opening yourself and the country up for problems.

Because yes, in some state somewhere there is someone who wants tighter organic standards and in another state there is someone who wants looser organic standards. We even bet there is someone out there who wants GMOs to be allowed in certified organic food. After all, GMOs are not inorganic; their exclusion from certified organic food products is simply a political decision. One day it may be reversed.

But we think if reversal ever is up for discussion, it should be discussed on a national basis. Our country thrives on one unified national market. Ms. Miars and Mr. Margulis should get on a plane, go to D.C., and try to get the standard they believe in adopted nationally. We can only commend them for their passion and commitment.

Yet the implications of allowing local pre-emption go far beyond this issue and the principle being established is not one that, long term, will serve the interests of the organic community or the people of the United States.

Many thanks to Peggy Miars of California Certified Organic Farmers and to Charles Margulis of the Center for Environmental Health and the Center for Food Safety for sharing their passion and perspective.

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