Production Blog

Buffer Relief

Emily Unglesbee
By  Emily Unglesbee , DTN Staff Reporter
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Organic and non-GMO farmers often must put valuable cropland into buffer strips to protect their fields from pesticides and GMO pollen drift. (Photo courtesy of USDA)

ROCKVILLE, Md. (DTN) -- The practices of commercial agriculture have not been particularly kind to organic and non-GMO farmers since GM crops were first introduced in the late 1990s.

Over two decades, GM crops evolved from novel immigrants in the landscape to the ruling class of crops. Today, USDA estimates that 92% of all corn acres and 94% of all cotton and soybean acres are GM.

As a result, a small injustice lingers: GM crops brought with them problems of pesticide and genetic drift, yet the organic or non-GMO farmer alone shoulders the responsibility and cost for keeping non-GM crops safe from these threats. Dedicating valuable cropland to buffers that keep GM crops at a distance is one such costly strategy organic and non-GM growers often employ.

USDA recently proffered a small but promising program which could relieve this burden a bit. Organic growers can now enroll the land they dedicate to protective field buffers in USDA's Continuous Sign-up Conservation Reserve Program (CCRP).

This new conservation option is available to farmers immediately this spring, according to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), which helped the agency develop the option.

The new CCRP program will offer rental payments for the buffer acres and help share the cost of establishing them with farmers. To qualify for the program, the protective field buffer must serve an accepted conservation practice, such as a windbreak or pollinator habitat. According to an NSAC blog on the new program, some of these practices actually bring an additional financial incentive from CCRP. You can find them here: http://bit.ly/….

The new CCRP program is capped at 20,000 total acres, so organic farmers would be wise to move quickly. Unlike the general CRP sign-ups, CCRP sign-ups are continual and land is enrolled automatically as long as it meets eligibility criteria, the NSAC blog noted.

Unfortunately, conventional farmers who grow non-GM crops won't qualify for the program.

It's hard to quantify how much money organic and non-GMO farmers lose on keeping GM pollen and pesticides at bay via buffers. Surveys on the subject are scarce, and the size of farms that grow non-GM crops vary widely, which makes it hard to generalize the research that does exist.

In 2014, the Food & Water Watch and the Organic Farmers' Agency for Relationship Marketing (OFARM) attempted to pin this cost down by conducting a survey of 268 organic and non-GMO farmers from 17 states, mostly in the Midwest.

In the responses, they found that farmers lost money on buffers primarily by growing a non-crop on them, or by forfeiting their premium on any crop grown there.

The respondents' farm size ranged from 5 acres to 12,000 acres. Ninety-five percent of them used buffers to prevent GMO contamination, which likewise varied in size. One farmer devoted 67 acres to buffers, but the average buffer acreage for the group came in at 9.5 acres. They reported an average cost of $4,776 per year, but the bigger farmers lost far more. Several reported losing more than $20,000 a year by setting aside land for buffers, with a maximum response of $45,000.

Buffers are only one area of production where organic and non-GMO farmers lose money to keeping their fields safe from contamination. Other practices, such as GMO testing and delaying the planting of a crop (to stagger pollination windows) add additional costs to their operations.

Of course, the premium that organic and non-GMO farmers receive for their crops should offset these additional costs. However, when GMO contamination does occur, farmers have little recourse for their lost premium. Crop insurance doesn't cover such losses, and proving that a GMO-growing neighbor was at blame for the contamination is difficult. Moreover, since growers must rely on their neighbors for help in isolating their crop, the damage that litigation would do to neighbor relations is rarely worth it.

The new CCRP program could help, but it has its limitations. Only growers who are able to set field buffers permanently aside for 10 to 15 years and set up conservation practice on the land will find it useful. Growers whose fields shift between crops with different buffer needs each year might find this unpalatable.

For more information on the new program, see the USDA press release here: http://1.usa.gov/… and the NSAC's blog on the new program here: http://bit.ly/….

Emily Unglesbee can be reached at emily.unglesbee@dtn.com

Follow Emily Unglesbee on Twitter @Emily_Unglesbee

(AG)

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