Agriculture Is Seeking Middle Ground Between Organic and Conventional Farming

As the Agriculture Department and farmers have watched the organics industry boom, the agency is working to find a middle ground between the needs of conventional and organic farmers.

Initially reluctant to embrace the idea of sanctioning organics under a USDA label, the agency has started to view organics “like its own commodity,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said earlier this year.

“There is a growing market for these products and they demand a higher price, so it’s incumbent on USDA to understand this opportunity,” Vilsack told a meeting of the Organic Trade Association in May.

But as the agency embraces organics, and recognizes the role they could play in boosting rural communities, it also has to consider that 18,000 organic producers are dwarfed by 2.2 million other farmers, most of whom grow or depend on genetically modified crops.

Genetically modified ingredients are not allowed under the organic label. When organic producers send their products to market, they can be rejected if levels of genetically modified ingredients are detected. This means they have to sell their product as conventional, losing the premium they get for organic.

The agency set up the AC21 — the Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture — in 2003 to address this question of “coexistence” and who should bear the costs of this contamination. A suggestion that organic growers could purchase insurance against contamination has angered the organic community, whose members believe the seed makers, who hold the patents on the genetically modified traits, should instead pay for the losses.

“We’re trying to find that elusive middle ground,” Vilsack said. “It’s a difficult proposition but I’m committed to it.”

The advisory committee’s recommendations on the matter have yet to be released.