Co-existence isn’t easy

Closed tomato flower by Rupert Brun via Flickr.

Imagine that you own a small business selling heirloom seeds. Your most important (and profitable) seeds are from a special open pollinated tomato variety that you painstakingly bred under over the past decade by hand crossing other heirloom varieties and selecting the best of their offspring. These tomatoes are everything a tomato lover dreamed of – the perfect red color, soft yet firm texture, sweet yet flavorful taste, and they have high yields to boot.
You’ve carefully transitioned your farm to organic and received your organic certification last year, so your seeds are in even higher demand than usual. Last year, you had far more requests for these special seeds than you could meet, so this year, you planted hundreds of tomato plants, planning to harvest all the seeds to dry and sell the following year to your tomato-hungry customers.
The weather is perfect, the flowers are maturing and about set pollen… and disaster strikes.
What’s the disaster? It could be any number of things. Farming is risky. There could be a few cold nights that cause the pollen to die before many fruits are pollinated. There could be a sudden flood that washes away half or more of the plants and stresses the rest. There could be a plague of locusts that destroy the plants. There could be an outbreak of a rare virus that affects the young fruit…
Or it could be your neighbor.
There are countless situations where neighboring farms can negatively affect each other. Even if everyone is as careful as can be, accidents happen. Here are just four examples to consider.

Missprayed pesticides 1

Pesticide being applied to tomato plants, image from the North Carolina State University Department of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology.

While you’ve transitioned to organic, your neighbor hasn’t. He’s having a heck of a time with spider mites on his plants and uses Orthene spray in an attempt to stop them from decimating his crop. Unfortunately, he risks spraying on a windy day. As soon as you see the sprayer, you run over to stop him, but the damage is done. Orthene has been sprayed over half your plants. Orthene is not an allowed substance according to US organic certification standards. If you’re in the United States, you’ll keep your organic certification, because you didn’t use the pesticide and your separation distance between your field and your neighbor’s was more than adequate, providing he doesn’t spray on a windy day. Still, you wonder if you should tell your customers about this incident. You wonder if there’s any legal action you can take against your bumbling neighbor for his improper pesticide use.

Missprayed pesticides 2

Your neighbor has a pretty nasty weed problem. You’ve tried to convince him to use a cover crop to keep weeds down between seasons, but he’s set in his ways. The conventional seed dealer in town convinces him to use the long-lasting herbicide Bromacil to wipe out the weeds. That’s not a problem, because you have planned for appropriate distances between his fields and yours. He decides to go all out and hire a plane to spray his field, but the pilot is a little young and accidentally sprays a few rows of your tomatoes. Now, not only do you now have a non-approved pesticide on your land that can stay in the soil for as long as two years, you have dead tomato plants. You’re fuming, of course, and have to figure out who to hold accountable.

Unfortunate hybrids 1

Bee pollinating a tomato flower by oceandesetoiles via Flickr.

Imagine that your neighbor also grows tomatoes. You notice that there are unusually large numbers of pollinators moving from his field into yours. You begin to grow concerned that your flowers are being fertilized by his pollen. You know that many of the resulting seeds won’t be of your special variety but a hybrid between yours and your neighbors. You might still be able to sell the seeds, but you know that the resulting plants won’t be what your customers expected. The taste may be different, the color may be different, many other traits could be affected. If you sell them without telling your customers what to expect from the seeds, especially your repeat customers, you know they’ll give you bad reviews and your business could decrease dramatically. If you tell your customers what to expect, you know you need to lower your seed prices, because the seeds are no longer for your special variety. Either way, you lose financially and your reputation suffers. You start to wonder if you can sue your neighbor for damages.

Unfortunate hybrids 2

You notice pollinators moving from the neighboring field into yours. In this scenario, your neighbor isn’t another farmer but university land – an experimental farm – where researchers from the state university grow who knows what. You heard a rumor that they’re growing GMOs over there so you investigate further by asking a friend in the ag department. Sure enough, you find out that there’s a researcher working on virus resistant tomatoes who has a permit to plant in the field this year. She had mesh cages over her plants and then released bees inside them so the plants could be pollinated. Usually the cages are secure, but for whatever reason, some of her cages were knocked over. The bees escaped, went looking for more flowers, and yours just happened to be the closest. The researcher’s experiment is ruined, and your plants may have been pollenated with her pollen!

Whose fault is it?

These are just four of many possible situations where a neighbor could affect a neighbor. In some cases, blame is clear, while in other cases, there really isn’t anyone to blame but the accidental forces of nature. Even when blame is clear, it’s not always easy to determine the damages, if any, owed to the person who has been harmed.
These neighborly problems aren’t even isolated to farms. The interactions between nature and humans are everywhere. What would you do if your neighbor’s unkept yard produced dandelions that blew into your yard? Can you sue him for the cost of the effort it will take you to remove the dandelions from your yard? What if your neighbor’s dog spreads kennel cough to your dog? What if your neighbor’s potato salad at the community picnic sickens everyone who tasted it?
At least when it comes to farming, there needs to be protections for both farmers who are the victims of an accident and who those who are the accidental perpetrators. There also need to be regulations that are reasonably written so farmers who are the victim of an accident don’t loose certification for speciality labels like organic.
Update: This post of hypotheticals was inspired by two very real recent events. First, in the US, the USDA is currently under discussion of GE alfalfa and how to find ways for co-existence of GE and non-GE alfalfa. Second, a farmer in Australia allegedly had his organic certification taken away due to GE canola volunteering on his land and plans to sue his neighbor. While there are certainly some issues of co-existence with any crops (GE, organic, or otherwise), it is clear that the zero acceptance policy of many proponents of certified organic farming with respect to genetically engineered crops is going to be the biggest problem for co-existence for a long time. There is hope though, as expressed by Secretary Vilsack in his Open Letter to Stakeholders to Urge GE and non-GE Coexistence. He concludes:

The rapid adoption of GE crops has clashed with the rapid expansion of demand for organic and other non-GE products. This clash led to litigation and uncertainty. Such litigation will potentially lead to the courts deciding who gets to farm their way and who will be prevented from doing so.
Regrettably, what the criticism we have received on our GE alfalfa approach suggests, is how comfortable we have become with litigation – with one side winning and one side losing – and how difficult it is to pursue compromise. Surely, there is a better way, a solution that acknowledges agriculture’s complexity, while celebrating and promoting its diversity. By continuing to bring stakeholders together in an attempt to find common ground where the balanced interests of all sides could be advanced, we at USDA are striving to lead an effort to forge a new paradigm based on coexistence and cooperation. If successful, this effort can ensure that all forms of agriculture thrive so that food can remain abundant, affordable, and safe.

Anastasia Bodnar

Written by Anastasia Bodnar

Anastasia Bodnar serves as the Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. She is a science communicator and multidisciplinary risk analyst with a career in federal service. She has a PhD in plant genetics and sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University.

24 comments

  1. The general rule of thumb is that someone who makes special claims for their product bears the burden (cost & risk) of meeting those claims. You can’t make someone else bear your production costs. So, someone who makes special claims for their crops needs to talk to their neighbor about movement of pollen, pesticides, etc. I.e., coexistence.
    If you’re an organic farmer, though, you say, ‘H*** No’ to coexistence and make a big deal of things if something happens.

  2. Can’t help but think that in unfortunate hybrids 1 you’re just as likely to bugger up your neighbor’s plants as she is to bugger up yours – pollen moves both ways and any seed production operation will suffer if pollination occurs in an uncontrolled manner – I have to wonder (and I have no idea about veg seed production, and only a vague idea about corn seed production) how realistic the situation described is – if you have a treasured variety do you really just plonk out fields with no buffers around them to be your seed production area? Do you allow for willy nilly pollination where neighboring pollen can be an issue or do you hire a crew and do things in as controlled a manner as possible to ensure the purity of your end product?
    Furthermore it is my experience that communication between farms is tantamount in any rural community for good farm runningness (its a word!) – our research farm and satellite fields require near daily communication with neighboring farms etc on when pesticides are going to be sprayed (kinda important to know if researchers are likely to be under a plane full of fungicide or such) – its also important to know what your neighbors are planting (if only to know what grows well in a given year) when they’re gonna flower, when people are likely to be harvesting etc etc – and to communicate when you’re going to be out sampling/working in the fields (farmers react rather badly when they look out the window at 2AM to see green lights floating around fields with clouds of billowing fog drifting between the rows (night sampling lamps and liquid nitrogen tanks) – cant help but think most of these issues would be avoidable with communication and good manufacturing practices in seed production

  3. I think these situations are unlikely because each requires an odd thing to happen (spraying on a windy day which shouldn’t be done, pollinators moving out of typical range, etc) but they are far from impossible.
    You’re totally correct that communication is essential. Shifting planting dates a little easily avoids cross pollination problems, but requires both parties to discuss planting plans.
    So why is it that organic folks are demanding that they be given precedence over the needs of other farmers?

  4. I am super glad that the USDA is talking more about this now, because now we have an opportunity to see what proposals each member of different Ag sectors has to say about it, and the coexistence issue is part of the larger issues of spillover effects between farms, as well as international politics.
    And the discussion of this issue confirms that Ronnie Cummins is an ideologue without reason or concern for anyone he disagrees with. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ronnie-cummins/usda-recommends-coexisten_b_800295.html
    My main concern with discussions of cross-pollination between GE and non-GE crops is that many of the voices talking about remedies or policy when coming from the non-GE sector are formulating their ethical principles around one situation and not thinking of the reverse. (Not that the GE sector isn’t thinking about their own situation primarily, though.) And that is, they are deciding that pollen from a GE plant is an attack from a neighboring farmer, and that either that neighboring farmer (or the biotech company that made the trait) must compensate a ‘contaminated’ farmer or cease farming that crop (or selling the seed altogether). Naturally, this serves the anti-GE folks in their goal to limit or end the use of genetically engineered crops. I had a good conversation with Margaret Mellon from the UCS while we were at MOSES, and while she said she did not know how to address cross-pollination issues, I mentioned to her that the pollen-as-attack point of view may serve the non-GE farmers right now, it could ultimately completely undermine that form of agriculture in the future.
    So let’s say an Organic farmer growing alfalfa finds that a few plants in their field are genetically engineered alfalfa. Let’s say the organic dairy buying that alfalfa is afraid of losing their market if they buy this low level presence alfalfa (LLP), so now the organic farmer cannot sell their alfalfa for the organic premium, and instead have to accept less money on the conventional alfalfa market. This counts as an economic harm, and in response, the organic farmer sues their neighbor, or Monsanto, or Forage Genetics, or the USDA, or whomever, to make it right for them. Let’s say that it becomes policy that the source of the pollen is legally liable for the cross-pollination, akin to a bull escaping from their fields. Organic farmers everywhere breathe a sigh of relief that now it will be very hard for GE alfalfa to be grown anywhere, because farmers and/or Monsanto will get sued for damages.
    Fast forward to the first hypo-allergenic genetically engineered crop. It could be peanuts, or wheat. Let’s pick the wind-pollinated wheat for example. Now you have the reverse situation, where the higher-valued hypo-allergenic wheat is damaged and the farmer harmed economically by non-GE and/or Organic wheat being grown nearby, “contaminating” it with allergenic pollen. Now the ethical principle of pollen-as-attack will work in the reverse, and demand that non-GE wheat farmers are responsible for not controlling their pollen. The organic farmer is the one not keeping their bull penned up, following the analogy. The end result of this is that the kind of world where the pollen source is the sole party responsible for cross-pollination issues, it could end the kind of farming it is being designed to protect.
    It takes two gametes to make a zygote, so it follows that if you are to make any guarantees to someone else as to the identity of those plants, we should consider the role of the farmer growing the identity-protected plants receiving the pollen as well. Eric suggests that those getting price premiums for identity-protected crops should be responsible for ensuring that they take measures to protect their crops and not impose this on others. Either way you hoe the row, someone has to shoulder the burdens of this conflict and the key is to figure out who should.
    Here is a great example of the complex spillover effects that cross-pollination brings, and if ANY of the people discussing the GE cross-pollination issue can answer this question, maybe we can come a step closer to answering the GE question.
    In California, there are these lovely seedless mandarin oranges that have been planted, which do not require pollination by bees to bear premium-prices fruits. However, if a bee visits another orange variety, and then visits the seedless tree’s flowers, the fruit will have seeds. Enough seeds, and the farmer cannot sell their mandarins as seedless, and will lose that price premium, an economic harm. These farmers either have to cover their groves with netting at great expense, or try to ban beekeepers from setting up hives on nearby land (even their own), which they have been doing since oranges were ever there. The beekeepers, in turn, get a price premium for orange blossom honey, besides having forage available to keep their bees alive. Banning the bees would economically harm the beekeepers, perhaps even make them unable to keep bees anymore in these hard beekeeping times. This is more complicated than the GE pollen problem, as it involves the pollen source (other citrus farmers) and the pollen sink (the seedless mandarins) and the bees that bring them together. Should the mandarin farmers, who planted the crops knowing that other orange varieties were around (and bees) be responsible? The beekeepers who have been warned that they are harming the mandarin farmers? Or the pollen source – the other varieties growing nearby on other farms? Discuss, here are some links to help:
    http://www.thedailygreen.com/environmental-news/blogs/bees/bees-mandarin-oranges-66123001
    http://www.thedailygreen.com/environmental-news/blogs/bees/seedless-mandarin-oranges-88122501
    http://law.justia.com/california/codes/2009/fac/29810-29812.html
    http://sonomacountygazette.blogspot.com/2009/04/seedless-mandarins-and-honey-bees.html

  5. Ewan,
    Your notion that out-crossing goes both ways deserves contemplation. If memory serves, regulations regarding conventional seed allow up to three percent ‘off-types’. Imagine the organic folks applying the same criterion to ‘organic’ seed. Given recent experience, one might be inclined to say, ‘H*** No!’ Interestingly, the use of the herbicide-tolerance trait makes it possible to aspire to nearly 100 percent purity for GM seed. Commercial-grade HT seed runs in the neighborhood of 98.5 percent (what Percy Schmeiser achieved in his ‘breeding’ program).
    Quite obviously, acceptable percentages on one side of the fence are vastly different on the other side of the fence.
    As for why ‘organic folks are demanding that they be given precedence over the needs of other farmers’, I could give you eight explanations, all of which are deemed important by the organic folks, and none of which make sense in terms of feeding people sustainably. We could start with the notion of ‘healthy soil’, which nobody eats, except in Haiti (sun-baked mud pies), and the healthfulness is disputable.

  6. Oh, and one more thing — about the headline, ‘Co-existence isn’t easy.’
    Co-existence is easy if you’re a conventional farmer. Always has been.

  7. As an organic farmer I can tell you that contamination happens and can be a problem even between neighboring organic farms. Seed producers do work hard to avoid conflicts and will pay premium for fields that are very isolated, for example. There are even regulations for isolation by distance in certain plant families. You do have to know your neighbors well, however, and communicate.
    Personally, I think the main problem is of public (lack) of understanding. Some people are freaked out over purity issues, when the reality is that a lot of organic food is grown with non-organic seed (due to lack of supply) and, in the case of corn, contamination with GMOs.
    Something I can’t quite figure out is why some accuse organic farmers of not appreciating food security, not worrying about people starving, etc. From my experience the opposite is the case and most organic farmers feel that they are providing for more long-term food security with their methods. GMO/non-GMO is a tiny part of the whole food system equation.

  8. Jason,
    Many thanks for that post. I am used only to hearing how conventional/GMO farmers are destroying the soil, poisoning consumers, hijacking the food supply, suing farmers out of existence for accidental outcrossing/commingling, making farmers commit suicide, killing biodiversity, etc.
    Even so, I have to wonder about using non-organic seed for growing an organic crop — conventional seed tends to arrive with seed coatings to assist germination, etc., which is frowned upon last I heard.

  9. Like you give a pound about world hunger. Go ahead and fast forward to when one of you bumps your head on a hypo-allergenic GMO and saves the world. The rest of us will live in the present, where GMOs are a small, unhelpful part of the hunger issue.

  10. When I buy non-organic seed I also have to pay attention to the coatings. There are many approved organic coatings and often these are placed on otherwise non-organic seeds. This is especially true with clovers. In order to avoid issues of having multiple products with conflicting regulations, many seed processors where I live routinely coat with organically approved materials.
    I due tend to think that glyphosate is lousy for the soil, among other pesticides. But I do understand why they are used–if you are trying to manage thousands of acres you can’t afford to do the extra work it takes to avoid herbicides. To me this is a tragedy as it leads to the depopulation and depression of rural communities. All part of the cheap as can be food policy.

  11. Jason – couple of points I’m a little unclear on – perhaps you can fill in a few more of the details?

    when the reality is that a lot of organic food is grown with non-organic seed (due to lack of supply) and, in the case of corn, contamination with GMOs.

    Two things here – first I’m not sure to what extent organic would actually require organic seed – obviously as covered above seed coatings of various kinds would be a no-no, but does it matter one bit (other than to purists who accept no artificial intervention other than those enshrined in law) whether for instance the seeds you utilize come from plants that were fertilized with anhydrous ammonia (or suchlike) in terms of actually growing an organic crop? Secondly to what extent is organic corn seed stock contaminated with GMOs? I would have presumed that most organic corn would be sweet rather than field (human market rather than commodity) and therefore contamination with GMOs, particularly at the seed level, wouldn’t be overly high (afaik sweet corn in the US isn’t GM, although I could be completely wrong in this respect – I know white corns for direct human consumption are GMed in South Africa so perhaps I’m off the mark on sweet corn in the US)
    Next up on glyphosate and it being “lousy” for the soil – is this merely in comparison to organic techniques or as compared to other methods used in conventional Ag – I was under the impression that soil recovered relatively quickly from glyphosate applications (I forget the reference – thought I had it saved but alas no) and that on the whole the capacity to utilize in a no till system was a big plus soil-wise (at least within conventional Ag)

    To me this is a tragedy as it leads to the depopulation and depression of rural communities.

    I’m not wholly convinced that rural depopulation is an entirely bad thing – my family (on one side) comes from rural stock and farmed for generations pretty much up to my Dad’s generation when escape became possible through routes other than signing up to die for King and country (my Dad made front page news in his local paper for getting a BSc in the 1980’s at 30 something) – I for one am glad of this as a life indentured to the soil isn’t overly appealing to me and if modern agriculture is part of what made the switch from a largely agricultural workforce to that which we have today then personally I see this as another bonus of modern Ag rather than as a downside.

  12. An interesting aspect of agricultural development is that technological improvements facilitate the emigration of people from rural to urban communities. When given a choice, most people do not want to farm for a living, and that’s as true in the US as in China. Farming is the most dangerous occupation, workdays can be brutally long, every crop is a gamble involving nature’s whims and planted with no knowledge of what will be paid for the harvest.
    If we want to see people move back into rural communities to engage in food production, we need to fix these and other problems with agriculture.

  13. The National Organic Standards requires that organic farmers attempt to buy organically produced seed. If proper seed is not available you can buy inorganic. Organically grown livestock have to be fed organic feed and/or pasture. Hence there exists a huge demand for organic feed corn and soy.
    The issues you bring up about rural life and farming are indeed complex. However, many, many farmers were “forced” off the land through US ag policy and the resulting economic turmoil. And many farmers today farm because it is a lifestyle they love. However, getting young farmers to stay around or repopulate farm country is difficult. The towns are often dead, with few of the socio-cultural attractions that make for a full life. Compare that to the 40’s and 50’s when farmers had neighbors they could walk to and decent schools and libraries, groceries and a downtown to go to…etc.
    I personally don’t find it encouraging that so few people know how to grow food. In the name of short-term economic efficiency we have destroyed a culture that supported our civilization. Cities can’t exist without rural people to feed them. 300 million people in the US are now fed by 3 million farmers. This is just a tiny part of the food security problem we have.

  14. 300 million people in the US are now fed by 3 million farmers. This is just a tiny part of the food security problem we have.

    As I see it countries where a higher proportion of the population is engaged in actual hands on agriculture are those which have food security problems.
    I’d agree to an extent that it sucks that not so many people know how to grow their own (or at least some of their own) food – but would argue that as our civilization has advanced we’ve been in a constant shift away from all having to produce our own food and towards specialization where the few supply to the many – freeing them to do things like build internets and other sniny things to take up our time (it does however amaze me on a daily basis the amount of work folk will put in to a uniform green patch of boring in their back yard as compared to the relative fun I have growing enough melons to last a couple days and so forth)

    Compare that to the 40′s and 50′s when farmers had neighbors they could walk to and decent schools and libraries, groceries and a downtown to go to…etc.

    Ah the good old 40’s and 50’s! So long as you were white and middle class or better the world was just peachy. My father grew up in a rural community in the 50’s – by all accounts it sucked. My grandparents did the same from the 20’s through 50’s – by all accounts it also sucked (nothing says comfort like central heating provided by cows in the living room (or as good as)) I’m pretty sure this goes back through generations of sucking up to whatever point my ancestors on that side weren’t farming for survival but instead raiding coasts and quaffing ale (which probably also sucked, but with less cows)

  15. I wouldn’t want to go back to the 50s either in some of the ways you describe. There are some serious benefits to modernity and liberalism, but the costs are real too.
    Global trade and regional specialization of production is fine as long as credit markets work and liquid fuels are cheap enough that distance doesn’t matter. Awesome that a bad harvest doesn’t cause the village to starve!
    But efficiency is not the same as resilience. In fact, what we do to become more efficient also makes us less likely to be capable of handling shocks. And I see plenty of shocks ahead–fossil fuel supplies, mined mineral inputs, the inability to grow economies at the rate debt levels demand, climate change and the realities of plant physiology, etc.
    If we have unlimited energy supplies we can afford to make mistakes and recover from catastrophes, which is the story of the 20th century. But this is not the future I would bet on.

  16. Eric~
    you picked some illustrative elements to comment on.
    1) “healthy” soil is all about the microorganismal communities and the fungal webs that support them and connect them with the vascular plants. Those plants DEPEND on those fungi and microorganisms. And those who “dispute” that the effects of synthetic biocides and far-too-concentrated and readily soluble fertilizers result in less nutritious plants, less sustainable production and greater vulnerability to stresses are simply ignorant of or ignoring the body of research that ever grows.
    2) THE outstanding, uni-directional difference between the transference from one side of the fence to the other is this: If my ages-in-the-genomes-of-the-world dog defecates on your lawn, it might make a mess for you. If your novel-in-the-genomes-of-the-world dog defecates on my lawn, you own my grass. There is no neighborliness, communication, or court action that can turn that into anything even resembling a reasonable outcome.
    3) Clever laboratory manipulations of DNA do not hold a candle to the standing of millions of years of evolution. The burden of finding ways to “coexist” without disruptions appropriately falls on the newcomers.

  17. One of the first non-governmental “advisory groups”, the “Council on Economic Development”, formed by the presidents of well-known giant corporations, headed, over the years, by board members of such, issued regular policy statements from 1945 until 1974.
    Dedicated to the elimination of the family farm.
    A 1962 statement on their “Adaptive Program for Agriculture” recommended a lowering of farm prices below farmer’s costs of production in order to force one-third of all farmers out of rural areas–“a program, such as we are recommending here, to induce excess resources (primarily people) to move rapidly out of agriculture”, to lower wages in the urban labor forces, and be replaced by mechanized farming, to provide cheaper “raw materials” for food processors. The CED advised everyone to “invest in projects that break up village life by drawing people to centers of employment away from villages, because, by preventing impersonal relations, village life is a major source of impediment to change.”
    Read that carefully.
    Break the backbone of America to get everyone into the cities to be cogs in machines that will go along with the change to that more impersonal society of industrial food production and lifestyles, dependent for food on that system of machines.
    I’d say they did a damn good job. Seems from some of the posts here that the the trade-off of comfort for depersonalization is seen as worth it.
    All that glitters is not gold.

  18. “If your novel-in-the-genomes-of-the-world dog defecates on my lawn, you own my grass. There is no neighborliness, communication, or court action that can turn that into anything even resembling a reasonable outcome.” Sure there is, passing legislation that makes the seed company have to prove that the seeds were grown intentionally, for one. Or how about making it so that utility patent laws in GE crops don’t apply to low-level-presence (LLP) or transgenes? I have thought before that the utility patent/lawsuit issue is part of why organic and other non-GE farmers and organizations are demanding zero tolerance of transgenes in their field. The fear of getting sued for just one such plant. But even seed companies such as Monsanto have said that they will not sue over low level presence. Percy Schmeiser, the oft-brought up example, had upwards of 98% GE canola in his fields (because he purposefully sprayed and replanted them to select the GE canola). Unfortunately there’s not a lot of information on other lawsuits out there so it is difficult to know what level of presence is sufficient to get the big seed companies knocking on a farmer’s door.
    “The burden of finding ways to “coexist” without disruptions appropriately falls on the newcomers.” While I understand why you feel this way, it is not a very well thought out ethical principle. Newcomers to where? The Earth? A region? How do you define a newcomer? Genetic engineering as a technique is a newcomer in terms of years, but also Certified Organic farms are newcomers in that the certification process (and thus the legal argument for damages) is almost as new. And modern Organic is different from ancient Organic, so you can’t use the argument that it has been around forever, either. On the regional issue, if GE farms must always bear the burden of coexistence with non-GE or organic, then how about this scenario: A secluded valley only grows GE corn. Someone buys a farm and decides to grow organic corn right in the middle. Since they are newcomers to that area, should they bear the burden or coexistence, or do they get to shoo away all the GE growers who were there first? For the GE traits that currently exist, any new organic farm is more of a newcomer than GE as well. Finally, if two farms start up in the same year, does whoever plants their seeds earlier get the legal rights, then? It sounds like an easy way to decide that all faults fall on GE, but when you codify it as an ethical principle, all these situations come up that make it not what you intended.
    And lets not get into how much longer pesticides have been around than certified organic agriculture – your “newcomer” principle would make a mess of that.

  19. And those who “dispute” that the effects of synthetic biocides and far-too-concentrated and readily soluble fertilizers result in less nutritious plants, less sustainable production and greater vulnerability to stresses

    Citations? I don’t recall seeing convincing evidence that plants grown in conventional Ag are less nutritious or have a greater vulnerability to stress (the whole reason that Organic yields lag behind conventional is because the system doesn’t reduce stress to the same extent) – also on the “far too concentrated and readily soluble fertilizers” – if I remember right Benbrook’s multi year study of organic vs conventional fields showed essentially the same level of nutrient runoff between the two systems, so this doesn’t necessarily hold – soil bacteria rapidly metabolize about any available nitrogen to nitrate (that’s how the plants, for the most part, take up N) and nitrate is sadly highly mobile in soil particularly in the wet (shame ammonium isn’t the general form – given the tendancy of soil particles to be negatively charged it’d stick around a lot longer)

    There is no neighborliness, communication, or court action that can turn that into anything even resembling a reasonable outcome.

    There equally is no amount of spin or intellectual dishonestly that will turn this into anything resembling what goes on in the real world. As Karl points out.

    Clever laboratory manipulations of DNA do not hold a candle to the standing of millions of years of evolution.

    Plants used in any form of agriculture categorically are not some pinnacle of millions of years of evolution – the reason they do what they do, rather than doing what plants unfettered by human hands in the past 10,000 years do, is because we’ve cleverly manipulated their DNA (while for the majority of that time not actually knowing this is what we were doing) for ~10,000 years – now we can do it with precision.
    Plus I’ll take clever lab manipulations over millions of years of evolution (why millions I may ask – given that if you’re going to play the evolution card you’ve got more than 3 billion to play with?) any day – my immune system is a product of evolution and it frickin sucks – sans lab intervention I’d be nothing but tree fertilizer (assuming my nearest and dearest follow my wishes)

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