USDA Gives Green Light to GE Alfalfa

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By Matt Styslinger

In late January, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) secretary Tom Vilsack announced approval of the commercial cultivation of genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa. The decision came after a long debate—and legal battle—over the safety of GE alfalfa.

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The USDA has approved the commercial cultivation of GE alfalfa without restriction (Photo credit: Food & Water Watch)

Those who oppose the regulation of GE alfalfa—including Monsanto and Forage Genetics, the companies who developed the engineered alfalfa—have argued that restrictions on GE alfalfa would lead to restrictions on other crops that are primarily GE, such as corn, soybeans, and cotton. They also argued that farmers should be allowed to choose for themselves whether or not they wanted to plant GE seeds.

Those arguing for regulation—including organic farmers, some food companies, and advocacy groups like The Center for Food Safety—cite the likelihood that DNA from the patented GE crop would contaminate non-GE alfalfa crops and threaten the rights of both farmers and consumers who wished to avoid GE crops.

GE alfalfa has been modified to be resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. Farmers growing the GE alfalfa spray Roundup on their fields, killing weeds without damaging their crop. Alfalfa is the fourth largest crop in the U.S. and more than 20 million acres of it are grown nationwide.

The Pesticide Action Network of North America (PANNA) argues that widespread use of Roundup has led to an epidemic of Roundup-resistant weeds. Alfalfa is primarily grown for hay to feed livestock. And hay contaminated with Roundup would contaminate the meat and milk of the cows who eat it, says PANNA.

Alfalfa is pollinated by bees, which travel many miles from their hives, criss-crossing farms and fields. Bee pollination, as well as wind, can cause non-GE crops to become contaminated with the patented DNA of GE crops from nearby fields. Organic farmers may have to forfeit sales if their crop is found to have genetic engineering. Farmers of nonorganic, non-engineered (conventional) crops exported to countries with GE restrictions could also be affected.

The USDA approved commercial planting of GE alfalfa in 2005. But the approval was revoked by a federal court. The court ordered that a thorough environmental impact statement (EIS) be done to include the possible impact on organic and other non-GE farmers. The USDA released the EIS in December 2010. Although the report cites the likelihood of cross-contamination of non-GE alfalfa with GE DNA, it concludes that no damage will come from the commercial cultivation of GE alfalfa. No other GE crops have been subjected to regulation, and Vilsack decided to give GE alfalfa the green light.

“The law as upheld by the courts requires that an EIS be written which accounts for the risks and seeks to mitigate them. In other words, the agency has to take precautionary action,” says Phil Bereano, food safety advocate and co-founder of AGRA Watch and the Council for Responsible Genetics. “Merely promising to research the problem while, presumably, the damage is occurring, is a failure to be precautionary.”

Bereano says that with this decision, the USDA “appears to be in direct contravention to its obligations under law and court decisions.”

For more on genetic engineering and biotechnology see: The Threat of a Technological Tsunami to Africa’s ‘Bio-sovereignty’, Interview with Phil Bereano: Part I, Interview with Phil Bereano: Part II, Interview with Phil Bereano: Part III, The Many Misconceptions About Genetic Engineering and Organic Agriculture, and Understanding Consumers’ Responses to Genetic Engineering.

Matt Styslinger is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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