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Published April 11, 2011, 05:45 AM

Ag secretary asks industry to consider insurance fund for drift

WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said April 6 it might be possible to create an insurance fund to compensate organic growers who think they have been hurt by the drift of genetically modified seed into their fields.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said April 6 it might be possible to create an insurance fund to compensate organic growers who think they have been hurt by the drift of genetically modified seed into their fields.

“It’s not about fault. It’s about making somebody whole,” Vilsack said while answering questions after a speech to the Organic Trade Association.

Floating an idea

He emphasized the insurance idea is not a formal proposal, but something he would like the industry to consider as it tries to address the fact that biotechnology is here to stay. He did not provide details or say who would pay for such a fund.

Appearing before the organic industry was for Vilsack a little like entering the lion’s den, because the organic producers have been strong supporters of the Obama administration, but have been upset with him since USDA announced that genetically engineered alfalfa could be planted without the restrictions that the organic industry had urged.

Vilsack said that using the Plant Protection Act to try to address nonscience-based issues, which some organic advocates had suggested, is difficult because the authority to use it for economic issues “is not there.”

He brought up an insurance fund after an OTA member asked whether the secretary could envision a day when organic farmers who think they have lost money because they cannot sell products that are considered contaminated could be compensated. Vilsack said “there is a legitimate argument” about whether it would be possible to “precisely” determine which neighbor’s field might have provided the contaminated seed.

Vilsack said he realized some producers would like the seed companies to pay — a statement that was greeted by applause. But he said that getting the seed companies to pay “may be difficult to do.”

Organic farming is a vital part of his strategy to revive rural America, Vilsack said.

“Organic producers are very entrepreneurial in nature,” he said. ‘“They’re in a position to create value-added products that provide a wealth of opportunities in rural America.”

Finding a middle ground

But Vilsack also said that farmers using genetically modified seeds “are fundamentally sound folks” and urged the organic producers to get together with conventional farmers and work out their differences. There may be a disagreement about whether biotechnology should continue, he said, but said that in his view, it will continue.

Vilsack noted that the Obama administration had put organics into the Agriculture Department’s strategic plan, established an organic office with its own deputy administrator and invested $39 million in research and development on projects such as novel crop cover mixtures, reducing loss of nitrogen and organic weed control. Another $32.5 million in federal money has indirectly supported organics through farmers’ markets and other programs, and $50 million in environmental quality incentives program money has gone into 1,400 projects benefiting the organic industry.

The Organic Trade Association received Vilsack politely. One organic advocate said that the industry appreciates the Obama administration’s organic effort, but would like to figure out how to strengthen its position when officials have to deal with the State Department and other agencies that have argued the government must take a strong position in favor of biotechnology to protect U.S. advocacy of science-based decision-making in trade relations.

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