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Coexistence In a GE World: Why We Can’t Just Get Along  

Frank Morton

Opponents Keep Winning In Court, Now Proponents Shift The Argument

Seeing the strength of the Courts' opinions favoring our legal arguments in the GE-Beet cases and in the GE-Alfalfa case, and sensing more lawsuits to come, USDA has launched a kind of a charm offensive, challenging the winners of these legal battles (organic farmers, eaters, and activists) to now agree to "coexist" with biotech introgression into all sectors of food production, including organic supply streams. Just what anyone means by coexistence is yet to be specified, but it's clear that the status quo is not an acceptable condition under the law. Negotiation is one thing, the law is another. When the law is on your side, you best argue the law. That's my position at this point.

Coexistence has a charming sound to it, and it sounds like one of those commonsense imperatives we should have learned in kindergarten. That is, before we learned about bigger people with badder attitudes, the bullies in our lives. The kind of coexistence that is actually in practice right now in the corn, soy, canola, and cotton sectors is not a satisfactory coexistence from the organic/ non-GMO side of the fence. Organic processors have an impossible task trying to reliably source uncontaminated product from these crop species. Contamination levels might range from 0.01% to 10%, and the concept of a happy, peaceful coexistence implies that organic farmers, eaters, processors, marketers, and certifiers can agree to some attainable level of GE-contamination that is acceptable to all involved. There would also have to be some semantics involved, because for most people, GMO-free or non-GMO, means 0% (zero) contamination—and this is often no longer a reality that can be attained for the "first four" crops to coexist with GE-cohorts. This is after 10-15 years of de facto coexistence.

In the de facto coexistence between GE-sugarbeets and non-GE sugarbeet, table beet, and chard during seed production, Court documents show that "Discovery has uncovered further conclusive evidence that contamination is not only likely, but a common and continuing occurrence, and that Intervenors' containment efforts are ineffective." The same heavily redacted Court document goes on to say that "...'roguing' off-types (hand weeding), isolation distances, and other measures have not stopped contamination from occurring year after year, dating back at least as far as 2006." This means that contamination began as soon as GE-sugarbeet seed production began in parts of the Willamette Valley in 2006. This doesn't bode well for the likely results of coexistence between GE and non-GE Beta crops looking 10 years into the future.

When coexistence is just another word for contamination, and coexistence is the only choice on the table, I say we scrap the term coexistence and move on to discussing responsibility, liability, containment programs, and better regulation. Unrestrained coexistence of the usual kind is like living with trespass as an expected occurrence, and this is no better than having it as a surprise.

Printed in the 2011 Wild Garden Seed Catalog.

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