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Biotech, organic coexistence research paper skews facts to support dubious conclusion

Pro-biotechnology researchers misrepresent findings of organic farmersí survey to support dubious premise that GM and organic crops successfully coexist in the United States.

By Ken Roseboro

(Sunday, Jul 18, 2004 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- A new research paper claiming genetically modified and organic crops now coexist successfully in North America "without causing any economic or marketing problems to non-GM or organic growers" is based on a misrepresentation of facts from a 2002 survey of organic farmers that actually documents how GM crops are negatively impacting US organic farms.

As acreage in both GM and organic crops increases in North America, there are concerns about how the two styles of agriculture will coexist. Organic farmers are reporting increasing incidents of GM crops contaminating their crops through wind-borne pollen or commingling in grain handling, which result in economic damage to organic farmers who cannot sell their tainted crops. Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack has said that coexistence between GM and organic should be a "national priority," and coexistence initiatives have been launched in several US states.

Dubious claims

A recently released paper, titled "Coexistence in North American Agriculture: Can GM Crops Be Grown with Conventional and Organic Crops?" and published by UK-based PG Economics Ltd., claims coexistence between GM and organic has been successful without causing problems to non-GM or organic growers. The paper also states that claims by "anti-GM groups" that GM and non-GM crops cannot coexist in North America are "greatly exaggerated" and that coexistence measures have "been delivering effective coexistence for nearly nine years."

Flipped survey findings upside down

However, a closer look reveals that the paperís conclusions are heavily based on a 2002 survey by the Organic Farming Research Foundation that shows the complete opposite: that GM crops are starting to cause economic and operational hardships to organic farmers.

The paperís authors, Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot, distorted some facts from the OFRF survey and ignored others to arrive at their dubious conclusion that GM and organic coexist successfully.

The OFRF survey was the first to look at the emerging problems associated with genetically modified organisms on organic farms. The survey found that 8% of organic farmers incurred direct costs or damages related to the presence of GMOs. In their paper, Brookes and Barfoot flip the findings upside down, stating that "92 percent of all organic farmers had not incurred any direct, additional costs due to GM crops being grown nearby."

Ignored facts

There are other examples of findings turned upside down. The OFRF survey found that 27% of respondents have had a GMO test either requested or required by an organic certifier or a buyer. Brookes and Barfoot state "73 percent of organic growers said they had never been required to test for the presence of biotech material in their crops."

The survey states that 48% of the survey respondents indicated that they have taken some measures to protect their organic farms from GMO contamination. Brookes and Barfoot change that to "52 percent of farmers said they didn't consider it necessary to change the way they farm to protect their crops from biotech material."

While some facts from the OFRF survey were misrepresented, others were ignored. Brookes and Barfoot ignored the fact that 46% of the survey respondents rated the risk of exposure and possible contamination of their organic farm products by GMOs as moderate or greater, with 30% characterizing their farmís risk as high or very high.

Commenting on PG Economicsí findings, Erica Walz, OFRF survey coordinator, says, "They saw what they wanted to see and used what they wanted to use."

70 to 80% reported impacts

The main problem with PG Economicsí findings is that they did not take into account that the OFRF survey was nationwide and included organic farmers in areas where GM corn and soybeans are not grown. In fact, the survey had 1,034 respondents, but only 100 to 150 produced corn or soybeans and were at-risk from GM crops.

Farmers who live in Midwestern states, where the majority of GM corn and soybeans are grown, reported significant impacts. "When you look at farmers in Corn Belt states, itís a totally different picture," says Walz.

In these states, 70 to 80% of respondents reported negative impacts from GMOs, says Walz. In addition, up to 88% of organic farmers in Midwestern states said they took some measure to protect their farms from GMO contamination.

"Tip of the iceberg"

Finally, Brookes and Barfoot ignored the comments of OFRF executive director Bob Scowcroft who said in a statement released with the survey, "In 1998, GMO (genetically modified organism) contamination was not yet a national issue. These new survey results based on the 2001 crop year document that significant impacts have begun to occur within a very short time frame. If this trend continues, what weíre seeing now will prove to be just the tip of the iceberg."

Perhaps Brookes and Barfoot should survey organic farmers in the Midwest and ask them how successfully their farms coexist with GM crops. It is likely they would gain a very different perspective than the one they promote in their paper.

Ken Roseboro is editor of The Non-GMO Source ( http://www.non-gmosource.com ) newsletter. He can be reached at ken@non-gmosource.com.