RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—On Thursday, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced it would allow the unrestricted, nationwide planting of genetically engineered alfalfa, which is also known as GE, GMO, or Roundup Ready alfalfa. The decision to allow this genetically manipulated crop into the environment—and ultimately onto our plates in some form or another—flies in the face of what consumers say they want. A survey released late last year found that the majority of Americans don't want GMO ingredients in the food chain, and more than 90 percent believe GMO ingredients should be labeled, which currently is not required by law. (Organic farming bans the use of GMO seeds and the pesticides used on GMO crops.)
The announcement to allow farmers to plant GMO alfalfa anywhere—even right beside an organic field—came as something of a surprise to many observers. Though the approval seemed a foregone conclusion, the USDA seemed to be, for the first time, open to the idea of "coexistence" between GMO, conventional, and organic farmers. For instance, one of the proposed options involved keeping a five-mile buffer between GMO alfalfa and organic plantings. And while many scientists believe coexistence is impossible because cross-pollination threatens to contaminate organic crops with modified genes, it was still unprecedented for USDA to even consider organic farmers at the negotiating table. That gave some organic advocates hope.
Cross-contamination—transfer of genes from GMOs to other crops—is already occurring in annual Roundup Ready GMO soy and corn.
As it stands now, though, GMO alfalfa is set to be in fields by this spring, unless President Barack Obama overturns the decision. There's just one problem with the potential for a presidential overruling. "There were some indications that USDA would insist on some restrictions to ensure the genetic integrity of organic alfalfa, but rumors are that the White House wanted to appease Monsanto [the company that makes GMO alfalfa, as well as the chemical pesticide Roundup sprayed on it] and appear friendly to business," says Marion Nestle, PhD, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health, and author of Food Politics(University of California Press, 2007). "It's a win for industrial agriculture and a big setback for organics."
THE DETAILS: Not withstanding the White House kitchen garden full of heirloom vegetables, the current administration has shown indications of chumminess with big agribusiness. Late last year, USDA secretary Tom Vilsack openly said in a phone call highlighting the final environmental impact statement regarding Roundup Ready alfalfa that USDA must not only support different types of farmers, but also the biotechnology industry that's invested in creating GMO seeds. It's no secret the government agency supports the chemical farming system in the U.S. and, as a Wikileaks memo showed us, around the world.
Even though most people don't eat alfalfa directly, many eat beef, cheese, or yogurt, or drink milk from alfalfa-eating animals. The organic dairy, grass-fed beef, and even conventional farming sectors that reject GMOs face the biggest threat, because these operations rely on non-GMO alfalfa as one of the main forage crops for their cattle. (Alfalfa also is healthier for cows than the typical factory-fed grains.) Cross contamination—transfer of genes from GMOs to other crops—is already occurring in annual Roundup Ready GMO soy and corn. Scientists say the phenomenon will be even more prevalent in alfalfa because it is a perennial crop.
The Center for Food Safety plans to continue legal action to block the GMO alfalfa seeds from entering the food system. "We’re disappointed with USDA’s decision and we will be back in court representing the interest of farmers, preservation of the environment, and consumer choice," Andrew Kimbrell, executive director for the Center for Food Safety, said in a statement. "USDA has become a rogue agency in its regulation of biotech crops, and its decision to appease the few companies who seek to benefit from this technology comes despite increasing evidence that GE alfalfa will threaten the rights of farmers and consumers, as well as damage the environment."