TALKING SHOP: First World Conference on Organic Seed, Rome, Italy

Can organic and GM coexist?
Operating on the assumption that they’ll pretty much have to coexist, organizers of the Rome conference made a first, imperfect effort to open the dialogue between these colliding worlds.

By Matt Dillon, Executive Director, The Organic Seed Alliance

Protecting Free Market Choice or
Developing Natural Resource Management?

Author Matt Dillon reflects on the missing ingredient at the discussions in Rome.

The genetic resources of plants are a living natural resource fundamental to the health of humans and the ecosystem at large. While we can place values on such a resource, modify it to increase these values and build systems of commodification and distribution, we cannot fabricate natural resources on our own. We are dependent on vast historical time and environmental development, with humans as one factor in that development. Our modern plant genetic resources are a combination of “wild” evolution, ten thousand years of farmer-based selection, hybridization and the recent advent of genetic engineering. To discuss coexistence in terms of consumer choice and free market rights is to narrowly view seed as a human created, commodified input. It is a dangerous oversimplification that will only lead to the continued erosion of this resource.

Seeds were the last natural resource to have been commodified, in part because the mechanism for production (or the factory) was contained within the product (vis-à-vis reproduction and seed saving). With recent innovations of hybridization and genetic engineering, and subsequent patenting of plant material, corporations gained the ability to control production. Commodification is not the “ill”, but rather the lack of consideration that has gone into a system to manage the resources. We need to develop plant resources to feed ourselves, just as we are dependent on harvesting products from oceans or forests.
But we lack the development of ethical, legal, ecological and human health strategies in plant resource management, lagging far behind other fields of resource management (such as forest or water resources). What are the far reaching implications of valuing corporate rights over resource management? How does the release of genetically engineered material affect the evolution of a living resource? Scientists, governments and regulators do not have a unified approach to research or regulation of genetic resources. In the United States, the EPA, FDA, USDA and US Patent Offices all have some degree of power when it comes to approval of GE technology. But they are not communicating together, much less considering the far reaching implications of coexistence with other production systems. Add an increasingly globalized and consolidated economy with international trade agreements that have the potential for overruling state or federal regulations, and we increase the risk of further degradation of this resource.

Forestry management professionals are realizing that replanting trees in a clear cut is not the most sustainable way to manage a forest; that forests are more complex than the sum of the species that inhabit them and cannot be reconstructed as such. They are also learning that the value of a forest is greater than the materials that can be extracted and modified for human consumption. Those of us in agriculture might learn from them that preventing degradation is the optimal situation. The natural systems that provide us with resources can be altered only so much before they reach a critical point at which no amount of self correction or human restoration will stop an erosive momentum in system health. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety recognized the value of prevention. The Protocol reaffirmed the application of the Precautionary Principle, the ecological equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath, and set a baseline for discussion of genetic resource management.

Coexistence cannot be planned, regulated or successfully implemented until we fully analyze the ethical, biodiversity, economic, ecological, sociological and human health impact of any technology that affects the resource. We need an integrated and honest approach to regulation, research and investments in the development of this resource. The issue in the end is not “how” differing production systems will coexist, but “if” we will develop responsible policies to manage a resource that is fundamental and finite.

Back in June Matt Dillon, Executive Director of the Organic Seed Alliance, called and offered to cover the 1st World Conference on Organic Seed in Rome. He described it as a unique event—the first attempt, ever, to bring GM and organic seed representatives together to address issues of coexistence. I’ll warn you now: This first piece is not chock full of detailed strategies for protecting organic seed from GM contamination. But it is a fascinating peek at the first organized effort by two mortal enemies to at least talk about how they might coexist. In what is undoubtedly a poor metaphor, it’s kind of like being there when Palestinians recognize the right of Israel to exist, and Israel accepts a two-state solution.

Matt is well qualified to give the events of this conference their proper perspective. He has been involved for decades with the conservation and development of seed resources, first as a seed farmer, then as Executive Director of the Abundant Life Seed Foundation. A year ago the ALSF reorganized itself as the Organic Seed Alliance (OSA), with a stronger emphasis on farmer education, seed research and the charitable distribution of open-pollinated seed. As Executive Director of the Organic Seed Alliance, Matt manages its education, research and World Seed Fund programs. He is currently overseeing a regional seed education program which is a collaboration of state agricultural universities, seed industry professionals and organic farmers. For more on OSA, visit

Next month, Matt will continue his coverage of the Rome conference by looking beyond the conference workshops to a grassroots coalition of farmers, educators, scientists and activities who came together during the conference and drafted a bill of rights for farmers that they think will be sorely needed in a future world of coexistence.


Posted August 17, 2004: The “First World Conference on Organic Seed”, organized by IFOAM, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and The International Seed Federation (ISF), brought together over 260 participants from 57 countries to explore issues pertaining to the production of organic seed. The overall conference goals were broadly described as creating scientific and technical dialogue between the conventional and biotech seed sector and the organic movement, as well as an evaluation and possible harmonization of differing regulatory requirements in the area of seed. The three organizing bodies certainly also held their own specific agendas, but there was one subject that they all agreed needed to be addressed - genetic engineering.

Event organizers expressed fears that the session optimistically titled “Coexistence of Organic and GE Agriculture” would degenerate into name calling, a world wrestling cage match of “Eco-terrorists vs. Gene Jockeys” or “Luddites vs. Mad Scientists”.

The topic of genetic engineering is unavoidable in a meeting between the organic movement and international seed trade, but what the organizers wanted to avoid was, “a full out riot”, as one FAO representative put it. Prior to the event organizers expressed fears that the session optimistically titled “Coexistence of Organic and GE Agriculture” would degenerate into name calling, a world wrestling cage match of “Eco-terrorists vs. Gene Jockeys” or “Luddites vs. Mad Scientists”. The session moderator, Mahmoud Solh of FAO’s Agricultural Production Division, began by stating that FAO views coexistence as “inevitable” and that this was an issue of “not if, but how” we would coexist. Solh attempted to create additional guidelines for discussion by pointing out that this was a scientific and not a political discussion.

One can only imagine that Mr. Solh meant the session would approach coexistence of these distinct production systems from the biophysical sciences as opposed to social sciences. Regardless, the session’s seven panelists delivered presentations that were a collision of political (regulatory), economic (consumer choice and GE seed industry concerns), and social (calls for improved communication) and for the most part were grounded in opinions as opposed to scientific data. Noticeably lacking were reports on issues such as pollen drift, crop specific risks of contamination, economic data on loss of seed crops from coexistence contamination to date, issues of intellectual property and breeder rights, or reports of damage to organic foundation stock seed.

The gap in the reports presented is in part due to the fact that there are few such studies, and certainly none that are long term and integrate a multidisciplinary approach to examining coexistence. But there is also the question of disagreements in research methodologies and outcomes. For example, reports on pollen drift in corn vary drastically, and the data often seems to work in alignment with the agenda of the organization disseminating the data. At a conference organized by three entities who all serve very different constituents, one can imagine that there would be difficulty and politicization in the selection of presentations. Nonetheless, the organizers were brave to make a stab at a topic that is so loaded with absolute sentiments if lacking in objective studies.

The Presentations

Birte Boelt of the Danish Institute of Agricultural Sciences followed the moderators opening remarks with a presentation on the process of creating a Danish bill on the coexistence of GE and non-GE crops. The working group that helped draft this first of its kind legislation concluded that “zero thresholds of contamination are not achievable” and so acceptable threshold values must be defined. The Danish bill calls for crop specific controls that include separation distances and cropping intervals as well as supporting increased communication amongst farmers. Unlike a German law that is still pending approval, the Danish bill does not have clear protocol for financial reimbursement to farmers whose fields are contaminated by GE pollen. The German bill in consideration would allow a farmer who suffers contamination to seek compensation from their neighboring farmers who have planted GE crops.

As the US produces more GE crops than all other nations combined as well as having the largest amount of organic acreage, there are already issues and strategies in place regarding coexistence, and the audience would have benefited from some overview of these.

Chip Sundstrom, conference representative for the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA) and California Crop Improvement Association, called for better notification to organic producers when GE crops are produced within a specific area. He noted that this would in all likelihood not occur as GE crop producers have a “fear of bio-terrorist acts” and called on the agricultural and environmental communities to respect GE farmers’ production choices. Unfortunately, as the sole US representative from the organic community on the panel, Sundstrom failed to address the specifics and stuck to safe generalizations of “better communication.” As the US produces more GE crops than all other nations combined as well as having the largest amount of organic acreage, there are already issues and strategies in place regarding coexistence, and the audience would have benefited from some overview of these. As an organic certifier, chair of ASTA’s organic working group and a chosen panelist, Sundstrom must have experience in this area and yet he gave no details regarding the US experience of coexistence. Making the point that radicals cause GE crop producers to live in silent fear may have been a successful conciliatory gesture, but it failed to represent the organic seed community.

The two representatives from the biotech industry were Reinhard von Broock of the German company Lochow-Petkus (research in sugar beets, rye, rape and potatoes) and Roger Krueger of Monsanto. Both shared a similar stance that coexistence was an issue of consumer and producer rights. Reinhard began by arguing that GE presence is not a risk, but rather “It is merely unwanted” and went on to call for a threshold of 0.9% GE presence in seed stock as acceptable, arguing that any lower threshold would be too expensive to control. Reinhard recognized the recent emergence of GE Free Zones and offered an alternative, “I would suggest the opposite: Why not set up areas in which farmers declare that they would be willing to plant GE crops?” but noted that this could only occur “in an atmosphere of understanding and trust” and made the accusation that “a minority tries to poison the atmosphere to prevent fair talks and in the end, coexistence!”

Fred Kalibwani of IFOAM-Africa identified the key differences amongst “informed stakeholders” as being in part due to a “paradigmatic clash” between modernists and post-modernists. Kalibwani’s critique at first seemed a strange approach, a somewhat rambling discourse on intellectual constructs, but he grounded it with an examination of the biophysical and social sciences as well as underlining the different issues amongst nations of the North (technologically dominant) and South (technologically dominated). He ended with a call for moving forward that included consensus building amongst stakeholders, the application of the Precautionary Principle (Scientific Uncertainty + Suspected Harm = Precautionary Action) and Polluter Pays Principle. In closing Kalibwani called for “Agriculture that is principle based.”

Beatrix Tappeser of the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation declared that given the current gaps in knowledge regarding coexistence, prevention of contamination is the optimum method for insuring freedom of choice...She called for a ban on GE products in centers of crop origin.

Representing the American Seed Trade Association and Monsanto, Roger Krueger argued that this is an issue of farmer and consumer choice and that, “Coexistence is about the existence of safe and approved production methods…not the exclusion of systems.” Krueger called for approaches to coexistence that are case-by-case and that “must be flexible, enabling practical options for the seed industry” and said that coexistence is already successfully occurring. He declined to answer any questions pertaining to his ideas of “successful” coexistence and how that fits with Monsanto’s lawsuits against farmers whose seed stock have been contaminated by Monsanto genetics such as the much covered Percy Schmeiser case.

Beatrix Tappeser of the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation declared that given the current gaps in knowledge regarding coexistence, prevention of contamination is the optimum method for insuring freedom of choice. Tappeser views this as pragmatic from both a genetic and economic point of view, as contamination will have high costs for producers and major impact on genetic conservation. She called for a ban on GE products in centers of crop origin.

Ranjith de Silva from the Sri Lankan farm and education project Gammi Seva Sevana began his presentation with remembrance of learning the golden rule as a child, “Love thy neighbor as thy self.” Speaking of seed as a common resource of local communities with farmers as custodians of the essential resource, Ranjith asked “Can we bring new innovations without harming our neighbor?” He called for a process in which farmers have voice in decision making and for policies that protected on site genetic conservation without risk of contamination from harmful technologies. Ranjith ended his presentation by answering his earlier question with an indictment that brought applause from many in the audience, “This system (GE) is damaging our diversity.”

"This system (GE) is damaging our diversity."

--Ranjith de Silva,
Sri Lankan farm and
education project
Gammi Seva Sevana

The Response

It would be euphemistic to say that a discussion ensued. The audience bombarded the panel with comments and questions and received mostly, “next question” in return so that the conversation became one amongst the floor with little panelist participation. The pending German rule and the recent Danish bill were criticized by several members of the audience for its potential of creating hostilities amongst neighbors in small rural communities. Michael Sligh of RAFI-USA pointed out that the GE crop producer is only leasing the patented seed, but would be forced to “own” the liability. Like Kalibwani, Sligh suggested a “Polluter Pays Principle” with the patent holder owning the responsibility for compensation. He noted that it is impossible to trace contamination to a particular GE crop producer’s field, but that genetic markers in GE crops allow us to trace the source directly back to the patent holder - the seed company.

Alternatively, representatives from the International Seed Federation attempted to downplay the contamination issue. In one such attempt to appease contamination concerns, Orlando de Ponti, who works with the Dutch company Nunhems in biotech vegetable seed research and represented the ISF as a moderator, declared that “We have the technology to re-purify contaminated seed stock.” Questions then arose as to who would pay for crop testing or the possible re-purification of this seed stock, and how this would work in a legal climate in which crops with contamination from patented genes are confiscated by the patent holder. These questions and many others, hung unanswered as the moderator went on to the next raised hand.

When does accepting thresholds become a compromise that alters the consumers’ faith in organics?

"‘Almost Organic’ is what happens when you don’t have a zero threshold."

--Felicia Echeverria,
National Organic Agriculture Program
Costa Rica

Acceptable thresholds of contamination were also hotly debated. If we accept 0.9-1%, what then? Is this a firm ceiling or as contamination increases will we be forced to reexamine these numbers and create new acceptable thresholds? What was the basis for these numbers? When does accepting thresholds become a compromise that alters the consumers’ faith in organics? “‘Almost Organic’ is what happens when you don’t have a zero threshold” said Felicia Echeverria from the National Organic Agriculture Program in Costa Rica. Echeverria, and many others, questioned why the organic community was forced to bear the burden of the coexistence compromise, and wondered how the organic consumer would react when organic product identity is comprised by contamination.

In hallway conversations many participants questioned the apparent consensus among organizers on the inevitability of coexistence (“not if, but how”), particularly asking if this was in reference to all crops or only those in which a GE variety has already been released on the market. In a post-conference interview, Zadok Lempert, Executive Director for IFOAM commented on inevitability, “It is inevitable. Although we (IFOAM) do not agree with their (GE industry) approach, we cannot erase them from the planet and so we must discuss coexistence.” Many participants came thousands of miles to have such a discussion, but avoiding questions in an attempt not to have the conversation turn “political” (a term, I believe, that Solh used to mean “disagreeable”), left these participants feeling ignored.

Zea Sonnabend of CCOF/OMRI said that while she had low expectations of any real progress during the session, she was nonetheless frustrated by the apparent refusal to engage in the difficult aspects of dialogue, “The moderation was the weakest part of the session. He refused to pass questions on to the panelists.” Similar criticism came from Carolyn Lane, manager of crop production and director of seed operations for the Minnesota based Northland Organics, “I would have liked to have heard more from the panelists”. Carolyn was particularly dismayed that questions were passed over regarding contamination of foundation and breeding stock seed and the damage of organic intellectual property by GE intellectual property.

The sense of being ignored was heightened by the choice of panelists. While representatives from, not one, but two GE breeding/seed companies were on the panel, there was a bizarre absence of a chair for the organic seed trade - and yet organic seed production was the focus of the conference. What do the organic seed companies whose germplasm is at risk from contamination think of coexistence? The organizers simply did not prioritize this importance in their selection of panelists, and although they had explanations for the complicated process of selection, the omission is difficult to fathom. Carolyn Lane offered examples of Maury Johnson (NC+ Organics, organic corn seed) and David Vetter (organic corn farmer) as two organic seed producers who have already been affected by the challenges of coexistence, and who would have added to the integrity of the panel. A recently released Organic Farming Research Foundation survey found that 48% of the farmer-respondents had a moderate to high concern of contamination of organic seed stock from GE crops. Certainly organic farmers have something to say about coexistence.

"It is inevitable. Although we (IFOAM) do not agree with their (GE industry) approach, we cannot erase them from the planet and so we must discuss coexistence."

--Zadok Lempert
Executive Director

The criticisms of this session were not criticisms of the conference as a whole. Most of the attendees that I spoke with were quite pleased with the event, but frustrated by a session that was bound to be highly charged. People were also grateful for the information gained and that the organizers had provided this opportunity. Amy Nankivil, also of Northland Organic, appreciated “everyone coming to the table with their own issues.” She also felt that the conference as a whole was a good start, a sentiment echoed often.

Nadia Scialabba, a member of the FAO steering committee responded to criticisms of both the moderator and panel selection in a post-conference interview. She expressed her own disappointment in Solh being “a bit too cautious” and agreed that “critical questions were stopped.” She did point out that FAO is an organization accountable to its member governments, and that this put Solh in a “straightjacket”. “All governments, even those that are pro-organic, do want biotechnology,” said Scailabba in explaining that FAO must work to serve divergent interests. As to the make-up of the panel, Scialabba believes that there was no intent to ignore the organic seed or production industry and that it was more likely an oversight. Personally she also wished that the conference would have been able to address issues of breeding and intellectual property rights as an aspect of coexistence. The FAO has done some work in the area of intellectual property, Scailabba noted, but much of this work has not seen the light of day because of “governmental pressures to block it.” The “Draft Code of Conduct on Biotech” was created in 1992, over a decade ago, and yet has not received further attention or release, bound in another political straightjacket.

Looking Forward

The presentations, if not a full spectrum approach, were certainly a compromise that resulted in a lively and important debate that will no doubt continue. Stakeholders from both the GE and organic community recognized that trust is a major stumbling block. In this regard, the organizers felt successful in having even begun the discussion. IFOAM’s Lempert was glad that the event went off “without any tomato throwing” and believes that the FAO and the ISF gained faith in IFOAM as a partner for future discussions, “We showed that we are non-militant - open to exchange of ideas.” FAO’s Scialabba praised an audience that was “respectful even in their differences” and expressed relief that there were “no riots”.

Scialabba pointed to other measures of success, “The private sector (seed industry) realized that there was another reality. They perhaps don’t always respect the others (grassroots organics) as scientific, but they recognized them. Also, the hard core organic people were less aggressive by the end.” She also noted that this conference was the first time that the chairman of the FAO had declared coexistence as inevitable, and that this was a major shift. In discussions amongst the organizing bodies immediately following the conference, the FAO agreed to take the leadership role in facilitating how these distinct systems can “develop without encroaching on each other.” Scialabba is at work to develop a mechanism for future discussions that will allow a reflection of differing opinions. In September she will assist in the establishment of a network of seed industry and organic sector collaborators that will begin to discuss and prioritize case by case studies of coexistence. She has her work cut out for her, in that as she pointed out, the FAO is accountable to governments and these governments are influence by constituents with seed. As for FAO taking the lead, IFOAM’s Lempert said that he was particularly pleased that the FAO had agreed to take over the leadership of future meetings and sees it as the way forward. Forward into a straightjacket? Forward into a collision of perspective? Will FAO be able to truly hear the voices that do no have the backing of large governmental powers? Is this the gamble that the international organic movement wants to take?

Outside of the future collaborations of FAO, ISF and IFOAM, a coalition of farmers, educators, lawyers, scientists, policy analysts and activists emerged during the conference with a vision of future steps. Taking the name, “Community Seed Network” they loosely defined themselves as a group representing principles of “farmers’ rights”. In the hours following the closing session they drafted a document expressing their vision of the next steps on the issue of coexistence. This included six specific points of respect that must be achieved in order for coexistence to be achieved. A future article will examine the formation of this international coalition and share their conclusions.