February 7, 2011
The Obama Administration’s recent decision to allow unlimited, non-restricted commercial planting of genetically-engineered (GE) alfalfa resistant to the herbicide commercially known as Roundup was a huge disappointment to the sustainable and organic agriculture community.
With the sudden decision and resulting outcry from organic and consumer groups, including many of our member groups working on this issue, it may be hard to keep up with all developments. Here is an overview of key events and ways to find out more and take action.
USDA had signaled in recent months that it would forge a first ever compromise approval, with requirements to prevent the contamination of non-GE alfalfa seeds and plantings, but in an abrupt about face, they switched to full, unconditional deregulation.
Just shortly before the decision, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack restated his position on the partial deregulation of GE alfalfa for commercial planting under a plan of “co-existence.” The Secretary’s view on co-existence is laid out in an open letter to opponents and proponents of GE crops.
What happened in the week between Secretary Vilsack’s testimony before the House Agriculture Committee, indicating the agency was very likely going to approve the much discussed “co-existence” plan, and the agency’s sudden decision to deregulate GE Alfalfa with no restrictions is a question many are asking.
White House Decision?
In the days after the decision, reports and articles emerged asserting that the pressure came directly from the White House. Wall Street Journal Agriculture Reporters, Bill Tomson and Scott Kilman, wrote that “[t]he Obama administration Thursday abandoned a proposal to restrict planting of genetically engineered alfalfa, the latest proposal shelved as part of the administration’s review of ‘burdensome’ regulation.”
Food Safety News also reported that: “Sources familiar with the negotiations at USDA, who preferred to remain anonymous, [said] they that they believe the White House asked Vilsack to drop proposed regulations so the administration would appear more friendly to big business,” wrote Helena Bottemiller.
A joint letter written by 25 individuals from the organic industry, consumer organizations, and authors Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, entitled “We Stand in Opposition to GE Alfalfa,” criticized the USDA decision.
More than 200,000 people submitted concerned comments to the USDA last spring about the risks associated with GE Alfalfa and many of the conclusions reached from its draft environmental impact statement (EIS). The joint letter states, that “[i]nstead of responding to these comments and concerns, including expert comments from farmers, scientists, academics, conservationists, and food safety and consumer advocates, the USDA has chosen instead to listen to a handful of agricultural biotechnology companies.”
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-OR), the original congressional sponsors of the National Organic Program, posted a scathing response to the Administration’s deregulation decision.
The issue of biotech seeds is especially critical for the growing organic dairy sector, in which many farmers rely on organic alfalfa for feed. The organic sector is a profitable part of the US agricultural economy, and the market calls for a supply of crops free of genetic engineering. There are numerous examples of contamination of non-GE crops by GE crop genetic material.
While Secretary Vilsack has announced measures to explore ways to protect organic and other non-GE farmers, the agency still places the entire burden for preventing contamination on these farmers. Furthermore, the agency has yet to adequately demonstrate that there are effective methods for preventing contamination.
In addition to contamination concerns, many other questions remain regarding genetic engineering. For instance, USDA failed to analyze the rapid development of “superweeds” that are resistant to the herbicide Roundup. Recent reports indicate that farmers are abandoning some fields, undoing years of work in conservation tillage to control weeds with heavy tillage, and turning to the use of more toxic herbicides.
Before the development of GE crops, glyphosate herbicide (Roundup) was used more judiciously because it could damage emerging crops. With the development of GE crops, the agricultural landscape has been flooded with glyphosate using methods that include large-scale aerial spraying. NSAC noted in a blog last year that there is concern originating from the long-term research of scientists that the same seed and pesticides extended across millions of acres of US farmland could be creating unforeseen damage to soil quality and plants.
NSAC also previously reported on the patent law that allows GE seed companies to restrict independent research on patented GE seed. A 2009 editorial in Scientific American charged that the biotech seed companies have blocked selected studies from publication that did not show positive results from the use of GE crops. We called for a revision of the patent law that blocks independent health and environmental research on GE crops.
The Center for Food Security (CFS) announced an immediate legal challenge to the USDA decision on GE alfalfa, noting the many risks to organic and non-GMO conventional farmers that USDA acknowledged in its Final Environmental Impact Statement on the matter.
The decision last week by the USDA to deregulate GE Alfalfa comes after years of court battles with opponents.
There has been a ban on the planting of GE alfalfa for the last four years due to a lawsuit brought by alfalfa farmers and sustainable agriculture and environmental organizations challenging the original decision of the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to deregulate GE alfalfa.
The federal court found that APHIS failed to uphold environmental laws in not requiring a full environmental impact statement (EIS) accounting for all the environmental and economic implications. The judge imposed the injunction on GE Alfalfa until completion of the EIS, and the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals twice affirmed the national ban.
In 2010, the US Supreme Court ruled to uphold the ban until and unless future deregulation occurs.
More Decisions Coming Soon
In addition to the just announced USDA decision to deregulate GE sugar beets, there are also pending decisions for GE soy and corn crops designed to be resistant to pesticides such as 2-4D and Dicamba.
Take Action & More Information
To take action and find updated information on GE alfalfa and the recent legal challenge visit these sites: