USDA stance on GM alfalfa threatens “fabric of organic industry”

Agency said to be protecting Monsanto while ignoring concerns of the fastest growing segments of American agriculture

A draft environmental impact study (EIS) on genetically modified Roundup Ready alfalfa released by the US Department of Agriculture ignores the threat of GMO contamination on organic and non-GMO farming and says organic consumers don’t care about GMO contamination.

Dismisses significance of GMO contamination
USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) released its draft EIS on December 14, 2009, and the Center for Food Safety (CFS) says the document dismisses the significance of widespread contamination of organic and non-GMO alfalfa. A CFS statement says, “It is evident that the USDA has not taken the concerns of non-GMO alfalfa farmers or organic dairy farmers into consideration whatsoever.”

CFS analysis of key findings of the EIS is listed below:

The EIS dismisses the significant adverse economic effects that GMO contamination will have on organic and non-GMO conventional alfalfa seed or hay growers, and organic and conventional dairy producers that rely upon organic and non-GMO alfalfa hay for forage.
The EIS’s economic analysis admits that Roundup Ready GM alfalfa will hurt the organic industry and small farmers but it fails to analyze or suggest any possible protections for organic.
The EIS says there is no evidence that organic consumers care about GE contamination.

The last point is especially ludicrous, says George Kimbrell, CFS staff attorney. “When the initial National Organic Program rule was published, the USDA received 275,000 public comments from people demanding that genetic engineering be excluded from organic food. This is evidence that people do care about GE contamination.”

“Business as usual”
In 2006, CFS sued the USDA for its illegal approval of Monsanto Company’s GM Roundup Ready alfalfa because the agency failed to conduct the National Environmental Policy Act-mandated EIS before deregulating the crop. In February 2007, the US District Court for the Northern District of California sided with CFS and banned GM alfalfa. The court ordered USDA to go back and do what it should have done in the first place—evaluate the environmental and economic impacts of GM alfalfa on the environment, farmers, and the public.  

APHIS’s draft EIS gives a green light to allow unlimited, nation-wide commercial planting of GM alfalfa. The draft EIS states that GM alfalfa, which is resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, is “unlikely to pose plant pest risks and will not result in significant impacts to the human environment.” However, CFS says, “USDA plans to move ahead despite increasing evidence that GM alfalfa will threaten the rights of farmers and consumers, as well as damage the environment.”

“USDA’s announcement is simply business as usual, once again catering to Monsanto’s corporate interests at the expense of farmers and consumers,” stated Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety.

Alfalfa is grown on over 21 million acres, and is worth $8 billion per year (not including the value of final products, such as dairy), making it the country’s third most valuable and fourth most widely grown crop. Alfalfa is primarily used in feed for dairy cows and beef cattle, and also contributes to pork, lamb, sheep, and honey production. Consumers also eat alfalfa sprouts.

“Threatens fabric of organic industry”
GM alfalfa represents a major threat to organic farmers and organic dairy production. Organic farmers use alfalfa for feed and in crop rotations to maintain soil nutrient levels and organic matter, and to prevent nitrogen leaching.

George Siemon, CEO of Organic Valley Family of Farms, says GM alfalfa “threatens the very fabric of the organic industry. In order for dairy products to be marketed as organic, certified organic alfalfa must be used as forage. When contamination of GE alfalfa becomes widespread, organic dairy farmers will no longer be able to give that assurance.”

Organic dairy farmers from coast to coast are alarmed about the threat posed by GM alfalfa. “Genetically engineered alfalfa will be devastating for organic dairy and livestock,” says Albert Strauss, president of Strauss Family Creamery, an organic dairy producer, in Marshall, California. “Alfalfa is one of the main forages we use and too important for us to do without.”

“Once we have Roundup Ready alfalfa, it will be virtually impossible to control the Roundup trait in seed,” says Art Scheele, president, American Organic Seed, based in Warren, Illinois, which sells organic alfalfa seed.

This is because alfalfa is cross pollinated by bees, and pollen will travel easily from GM alfalfa to non-GMO and organic alfalfa. “Even with the best isolation methods, you can’t control bees; they can travel several miles,” Scheele says.

“We are going to get contaminated seed”
Jack Lazor, owner of Butterworks Farm in Westfield, Vermont, says the situation with GM alfalfa is similar to that of canola where GM varieties all but eliminated the organic canola market. “All you have to do is compare what happened with canola, which is also insect-pollinated,” he says. “Why isn’t the same thing going to happen with alfalfa?”

Lazor is particularly concerned about seed contamination because alfalfa seed is grown primarily in limited regions of the western United States. “We are going to get contaminated seed. Those genes will be in our plants, and there will be general contamination of alfalfa,” he says.

Conventional alfalfa farmers are equally at-risk. “Allowing Roundup Ready alfalfa to be grown in fields across America without restriction spells the elimination of farmers like me who grow alfalfa and choose not to use Monsanto’s GM crops,” said Phillip Geertson, a conventional alfalfa seed grower and plaintiff in the lawsuit brought by CFS. “It’s inevitable that the GM pollen will invade conventional and organic alfalfa, making it virtually impossible to grow non-GM alfalfa in just a few years.”

Another problem with the EIS, says George Kimbrell, is that it says there are only two possible outcomes: de-regulate RR alfalfa or not. “They could authorize a partial de-regulation with isolation and use restrictions. They acknowledge that contamination will happen, but they are not even considering any protections for farmers who want to be GM-free. The basic mission of the USDA is to protect American agriculture, not Monsanto.”

(copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report, January 2010)

Send comments to USDA opposing GM alfalfa

In response to USDA’s head-in-the-sand attitude about the threats posed by GM alfalfa, the Center for Food Safety is encouraging supporters of organic and conventional farming and food to send public comments to USDA. Following the release of the EIS, USDA announced a 60-day public comment period beginning on December 18, 2009. “We are trying to encourage every voice possible—farmers, manufacturers, retailers, and consumers—to raise their concerns with this draft,” says George Kimbrell, CFS staff attorney.

Kimbrell says it is critical that people send comments because this is the first time that USDA has prepared an EIS for any GM crop. “The final, approved EIS will have broad implications for all GM crops,” he says.

“Hopefully the whole organic industry and consumers will get behind this and send comments to the USDA,” says Albert Strauss of Strauss Family Creamery.

In addition USDA is hosting four public meetings about GM alfalfa from mid-January to early February.

Submit Comments to the USDA/APHIS -- by February 16, 2010