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(Reuters) - Organic growers and food safety advocates on Tuesday condemned an advisory report to the Agriculture Department claiming its recommendations would be costly for farmers who want to protect their conventional crops from being contaminated by genetically modified (GMO), also known as genetically engineered (GE), varieties.
The groups were responding to a report submitted Monday afternoon to the U.S. Department of Agriculture by a committee assigned by USDA with studying how best biotech agriculture could "co-exist" with organic and conventional agriculture.
"Of particular concern in the report is the recommendation that organic and non-GE conventional farmers pay to self-insure themselves against unwanted GE contamination," said a statement by the National Organic Coalition.
"This proposal allows USDA and the agricultural biotechnology industry to abdicate responsibility for preventing GE contamination while making the victims of GE pollution pay for damages resulting from transgenic contamination," it said.
Since their introduction in 1996, genetically engineered crops have become popular with U.S. farmers and now make up the majority of corn and soybeans produced in the United States. But there are a range of environmental and health concerns tied to biotech crops, and many farmers prefer not to grow them and many markets, both domestic and international, pay a premium for non-GMO crops and other products.
In its report, the advisory committee, known as the AC21, said all American farmers have the right to make the best choices for their own farms, including the choice to grow genetically engineered crops, or to grow organic or conventional crops.
"It is important that every American farmer is encouraged to show respect for their neighbor's ability to make different choices," the report said.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said USDA would review the report and consider the recommendations. He said USDA supports "all segments of agriculture."
"The report is the culmination of a great deal of hard work and complex discussion and review," said Vilsack in a statement. "I understand that required compromises to find common ground."
USDA had asked the advisory committee to analyze what types of compensation mechanisms, if any, would be appropriate to address economic losses by farmers due to contamination by GE crops. And while there was some dissent, a majority of AC21 members did not agree on any type of compensation mechanism.
The committee said its members could not agree about the extent to which a systemic problem exists and whether there is enough data to warrant a compensation mechanism to address it. While the committee acknowledged there are unintended GE materials found in commercial products, they differed in their assessment of the significance of the unintended presence.
The committee recommended that the USDA evaluate data to better understand actual economic losses by farmers tied to GE contamination. If a compensation program is needed, the committee said it should be modeled on existing crop insurance. Co-existence agreements between neighboring farmers should be developed, the committee said.
"This issue will only increase as new biotech products come to market so it is essential that the federal government step up now and establish strong policies that ensure coexistence measures are carried out by farmers, seed companies, and others who move food from the farm to the consumer's table," said Greg Jaffe, a committee member and director of the Biotechnology Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based non-profit.
Jaffe said he supported the report's recommendations.
The committee was comprised of 23 individuals from 16 states and the District of Columbia, representing academia, the American Farm Bureau, corn, wheat and soybean industry organizations, the organic industry, grain companies and others.
The committee also recommended that USDA should set up and fund a comprehensive education and outreach initiative to "strengthen understanding of coexistence between diverse agricultural production systems."
And the committee said the USDA should fund and research improved techniques for mitigating contamination and gather data from seed companies on contamination. It also recommended that USDA evaluate on an ongoing basis the pool of commercially available non-GMO seed and ensure that the seed supply remains diverse.
In criticizing the report, the organic growers said the committee "failed to make a single recommendation holding the patent holders of genetic engineering technologies responsible and liable for damages" caused by biotech seed use.
"We urgently need meaningful regulatory change that institutionalizes mandatory GE contamination prevention practices," the National Organic Coalition said. "USDA needs to stop dragging its heels, get serious and focus on making this happen."
Reporting By Carey Gillam; Editing by Bob Burgdorfer