Mar 17, 2011

GE Alfalfa Deregulation Defies Common Sense

by Mary Fund

In late January, USDA caved to industry pressure and approved genetically modified Roundup Ready alfalfa for public sale without any federal restrictions to prevent con-tamination of the nation’s non-GMO and organic alfalfa seed and crops. USDA’s decision met with quick outrage from conventional non-GMO producers and organic growers and consumers. Citing the many risks to organic and non-GMO conventional farmers that USDA acknowledged in its own environmental impact statement, the Center for Food Security announced an immediate legal challenge.

Opponents have long argued that GM alfalfa poses a serious threat to non-GMO and organic alfalfa due to the unique properties of the plant. Alfalfa is a basic feed for all organic livestock, and the most common legume in organic crop rotations in the northern states.

Pollinated by bees and other insects that travel great distances, cross pollination with non-GM alfalfa and wild alfalfa is a very real threat. The decision appears to completely ignore this potential for cross pollination and contamination of non-GMO and organic crops, and the subsequent damage to markets demanding non-GMO products. It also ignores the growing evidence of Roundup resistant “superweeds” that are appearing in fields across the country that have received years of applications of the herbicide.

USDA’s decision to deregulate appeared especially harsh to non-GMO and organic farmers because in December USDA’s Secretary Vilsack had announced they were working to find a compromise. USDA, he stated, would approve GM alfalfa under either complete deregulation, or partial deregulation with restrictions on where and how the crop could be grown as a way to protect non-GMO alfalfa and organic alfalfa. As late as a week before the final decision, Vilsack indicated USDA would choose partial regulation.

Called “co-existence”, the proposal being discussed was not popular among non-GMO and organic growers because most agree that the GM traits can’t be contained in alfalfa. But co-existence did attempt to address concerns about cross-contamination by requiring a five-mile buffer between GM alfalfa plantings and non-GMO or organic.

Organic organizations argued for a contamination compensation fund for what they saw as the inevitable contamination of their crops and seed and the resulting damage to their non-GMO markets. But industry firmly opposed a compensation fund, which many see as tantamount to admitting that they could not contain the impact of their product, and that they apparently did not care if they did.

Speculation is that the Obama White House joined a long line of administrations supporting the biotechnology industry above the needs and welfare of farmers and the environment. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Obama Administration “abandoned the proposal to restrict planting of genetically engineered alfalfa, only the latest proposal shelved as part of the administration’s review of ‘burdensome’ regulation.”

Burden is on the farmers.
In a statement of principles prior to the decision, the National Organic Coalition stated, “Farmers who seek to avoid GMOs must not continue to be solely responsible for contamination prevention and clean-up and/or be forced to give up growing certain crops.” But the decision to deregulate puts the burden of preventing contamination firmly on the backs of organic and non-GMO producers. USDA has not provided evidence of proven methods for preventing contamination.

Not many farmers can afford to sue the corporate manufacturer if their crops become contaminated, which is Big Ag giant Monsanto. And in case that is not enough, Monsanto’s Technology Stewardship Agreement, that each farmer buying their seed must sign, makes it crystal clear that the farmer is the one held liable, not Monsanto: “In no event shall Monsanto or any seller be liable for any incidental, consequential, special or punitive damages.” So farmers carry the burden either way.

Solution for a non-existent problem – or creation of a new one?
But you might ask, is there a real need for Roundup Ready alfalfa? The bio-technology industry argues that commercial alfalfa growers complain of weed problems or thin stands. Weeds in Roundup resistant alfalfa could be sprayed without damaging the alfalfa. But any good farmer knows that the best answer to the problem is to implement a vigorous crop rotation.

Alfalfa is a perennial crop, but the longer it is kept in place, the more problems there are. So the solution is to plant a new crop every few years, use the old field for corn or soybeans, and take advantage of the fertility and nutrients the alfalfa provides. The introduction of GM alfalfa simply allows poor management based on a monocrop system, and seals the biotech seed industry’s hold on the top four commodity crops- corn, soybeans, cotton and alfalfa.

Furthermore, the development of “superweeds” resistant to Roundup after years of exposure is well-known and is creating a whole new set of problems. Critics argue that USDA failed to analyze this in their approval of GM alfalfa. Recent stories describe farmers undoing years of conservation tillage work with heavy tillage—all due to super weeds no longer responding to Roundup—or returning to the use of more toxic herbicides. There is also emerging news from long-term research that using the same seed and pesticides on millions of acres of farmland could be creating unforeseen damage to soil quality and plants.

Destroying organic markets.
The organic sector has been a profitable part of a diverse U.S. agricultural economy—a 26 billion dollar a year industry that helps keep almost 15,000 family farms operating. Double- digit annual growth has been the norm for nine of the past ten years.

“Preserving market and farmer choice and agricultural diversity are central to USDA’s mission and the future of rural American livelihoods,” stated Christine Bushway, Executive Director and CEO of the Organic Trade Association. “This failure to do so will make it increasingly difficult to meet the growing demand for U.S. organic crops.”

Legal challenges.
The Center for Food Safety, the non-profit group who fought the earlier legal battles on GE alfalfa, vows to seek a court order immediately reversing and voiding USDA’s approval of Roundup Ready alfalfa. “We will be back in court,” Andrew Kimbrell, CFS Executive Director stated, “ representing the interest of farmers, preservation of the environment and consumer choice.”

For more information see the following:
Center for Food Safety www.centerfor
National Organic Coalition
Organic Farming Research Foundation

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