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.