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01/28/2011 10:50 AM     print story email story  

USDA to Fully Deregulate Genetically Engineered Alfalfa News

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack on Thursday announced that the agency will fully deregulate Monsanto’s (NYSE: MON) controversial genetically engineered alfalfa. 

Monsanto has been trying for years to gain approval for its genetically modified Roundup-Ready alfalfa seed. On January 27, it finally got the green light in the form of "deregulation." Farmers can now plant GE alfalfa, and the USDA won't keep track of who plants it where. Monsanto will bear no responsibility for any business loss related to genetic contamination that is certain to result.

Alfalfa is the main forage crop for livestock - the spread of contaminated alfalfa will undoubtedly tarnish organic beef and dairy, as well as organic vegetables.

USDA could have maintained regulatory status over the perennial crop that is so important as forage for the livestock industry. Or they could have chosen a limited regulation strategy with bans on the planting of GE alfalfa seeds in seed growing regions to attempt to limit the contamination of alfalfa seed stock by foreign DNA from Monsanto’s crop. (Alfalfa is pollinated by bees and other insects and has a pollination radius of five miles). 

Instead, the agency, under heavy pressure from the biotech sector, chose total deregulation. Over 250,000 public comments were received during the FEIS process, with the vast majority opposing deregulation, according to the Cornucopia Institute.

Vilsack did announce that the USDA would establish a second germ plasm/seed center for alfalfa in the state of Idaho to "try" to maintain GE-free strains of alfalfa. They currently operate such a facility in Prosser, WA. 

The Center for Food Safety, with The Cornucopia Institute and others, has been embroiled in a court case fighting the release of GE-alfalfa.  The case has been on hold while the USDA completed its court-ordered EIS. Opponents of GE-alfalfa are evaluating their choices and likely will resume their legal battle.

“This creates a perplexing situation when the market calls for a supply of crops free of genetic engineering. The organic standards prohibit the use of genetic engineering, and consumers will not tolerate the accidental presence of genetic engineered materials in organic products yet GE crops continue to proliferate unchecked,” said Christine Bushway, Executive Director and CEO of the Organic Trade Association (OTA).

The organic sector is a profitable part of a diverse U.S. agricultural economy--a 26.6 billion-dollar-a-year industry that employs tens of thousands around the country, and helps keep at least 14,540 family farms operating in our rural countryside. Except for 2009, the organic industry has experienced double digit growth--often over 20%--annually for over a decade.

Unrestricted commercialization of genetically engineered crops--86% of the country’s corn and 93% of soybeans--has resulted in widespread unlabeled presence of GE materials in mainstream food products unbeknownst to the average consumer. According to California’s Department of Food and Agriculture, at least 70% of processed foods in American supermarkets now contain GE ingredients.

The USDA organic program is the only federal food label that prohibits the use of GE crops or materials. Under current USDA policy, the organic sector bears the burden created by unchecked release of GE crops.

While USDA, for the first time, took a step and acknowledged organic and IP agriculture as a stakeholder in decisions around the release of GE crops it is a small step for organic alongside giant steps towards accelerated decisions to deregulate many new GE crops awaiting review at USDA. The organic industry and the loyal consumers of organic products will continue to resist this unrestricted commercialization of GE crops being brought to market by the well-funded and influential biotech industry.

In addition to concerns for the organic sector, many unanswered questions remain regarding genetic engineering. For instance, how does the biotech industry and USDA intend to control the rapid development of superweeds from the overuse of Roundup and other herbicides, analogous to the advent of antibiotic resistance with conventional agriculture’s routine overuse of antibiotics to address overcrowding and growth rather than disease? Also, how do you conduct sound epidemiological science on the long-term health impact of genetically engineered substances that cannot be traced through the food system because foods produced using GE are not labeled as such?

“Until these questions are addressed, the argument that agricultural biotechnology represents ‘sound science’ is just not valid,” Bushway added.


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