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Cropchoice Opinion ...
Protecting Profits from Contamination

(14 June - Cropchoice Opinion) -- It is inevitable. This fall, biotech contamination - or "leakage", as industry prefers to call it - will be an issue for American farmers. However reluctantly in some cases, farmers, industry, grain merchants, and food companies will have to deal with it. Many already are - especially as you get closer to the consumer - but as you move back the chain of production towards farms and seed, there is less clarity on the issue.

Many markets just don't want US biotech harvests, and they're prepared to test and take their business elsewhere. Last year, 12 of 20 conventional US seed lots sampled had some level of biotech contamination. There is no indication there was improvement this year. Through contaminated seed, cross-pollination, dirty equipment or storage, or some combination, GMOs will appear in unexpected places this fall. It may cost farmers serious money.

For this reason, forward thinking farm groups have been calling on their members - and all farmers - to keep good records and segregation systems. If there is one thing family farmers don't need, it's fingers pointing at each other over a biotech contamination problem.

Liability for losses - missed premiums, returned shipments, and the like - should rest firmly with the problem's source: industry that is still in denial, didn't work to prevent the problem, and has seed production practices that mix up genes.

"Polluter pays" was how the French agriculture chief put it during the recent European problem with GMO-tainted canola seed. And in Europe the "polluter", Advanta (maker of Garst Hybrids), is paying. British and French farmers who planted, and then had to cut down, the Roundup-Ready contaminated "conventional" canola are being compensated by the company. As well they should. If producers buy non-biotech varieties and follow reasonable practices but still have problems, the blame cannot be laid at farmers feet.

Advanta still denies liability for the canola. The company says "cross pollination cannot be controlled 100% in a natural environment. It is unavoidable that this will happen." But Advanta didn't test its luck in the courts and call on somebody else to pay - it is forking over money.

Because of contamination, the company is moving its canola seed production operations off the windswept and GMO canola intense Canadian prairies. Advanta canola sold in Europe in the future - if farmers buy any - will be produced in New Zealand, the eastern Canadian province of New Brunswick (where canola isn't usually planted), or in Montana.

So if seed company bottom lines are threatened, steps can be taken to reduce contamination in conventional seed. That could help protect American markets.

The insurance industry - and tort lawyers - are watching closely. Advanta refuses to say whether or not it was covered for biotech contamination and will file an insurance claim for the multimillion dollar canola fiasco. Quoted in Business Insurance, NFU Mutual, the crop insurer that represents many of the farmers affected in Britain says "There is an awful lot of deliberation going on at the moment as to where liability actually rests... insurance will have to be reviewed in light of the Advanta seeds situation."