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Flash in the Pan

Genetically engineered game changer


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After years of wrangling, Monsanto finally got the U.S Department of Agriculture's (USDA) blessing to sell its patented Roundup Ready alfalfa. The seed's DNA has been genetically engineered (GE) to allow the plant to survive contact with glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto's herbicide Roundup. Opponents fear that once the seed is planted commercially, various Monsanto-made and -owned GE traits will drift through the alfalfa fields of the world, making non-GE alfalfa hard or impossible to find.

On Jan. 27, USDA deregulated Roundup Ready alfalfa, which means not only that farmers are free to plant GE alfalfa, but that USDA won't even be tracking who plants it and where. There will be no monitoring, no notification system, and little reason to believe Monsanto will be held liable for any business lost to the genetic contamination that is likely to result. If the decision stands, and GE alfalfa is planted commercially, we can probably kiss organic dairy and beef as we know them goodbye.

Alfalfa is the main forage crop for dairy cows and one of the principle foods for beef cows, especially grass-fed cattle. The plant is bee-pollinated, which means that every time GE alfalfa is planted, every other alfalfa plant within about five miles is subject to contamination with GE pollen. Alfalfa is a perennial, commonly living 10 to 25 years in the United States, while Mexico and France claim centuries-old alfalfa patches. A single established plant can produce as many as 16,000 seeds per year.

Last June, the notoriously business-friendly U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ban on the planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa until the USDA produced an environmental impact statement (EIS). That EIS was released in December 2010, after a public comment period in which most of the 200,000-plus comments were against GE alfalfa. Many voiced concerns about the possible effects of GE alfalfa on the organic dairy and beef industries.

The EIS concludes, somewhat confusingly: "...consumer preferences for organic over GE foods are influenced in part by ethical and environmental factors that are likely unrelated to minor unintended presence of GE content in feed crops."

I added the italics because there's little basis for "likely" in the public comments, or for critics not being concerned about "minor" contamination. There's nothing minor about the threat posed by Roundup Ready alfalfa. If planted commercially it will probably spread its mutant genes and seeds across the nation, contaminate the alfalfa fed to organic animals, and produce Roundup-resistant superweeds that will require chemicals more toxic than Roundup to destroy.

When the organic rules were drafted in 1997, Big Ag tried hard to include GE products in the organic definition. In response, USDA received more than 275,000 comments against GE organics. It was the largest number of comments USDA ever received on an issue. How today's Tom Vilsack-led USDA managed to conclude that organic consumers are likely unconcerned by GE contamination of organic products is a mystery—that is, perhaps, until we recall that he used to fly around in Monsanto's corporate jet, and was named "Governor of the Year" by the Biotechnology Industry Council.


When Vilsack was named Obama's Secretary of Agriculture in late 2008, sustainable-food activists felt duped. The appointment followed a flood of opposition to his consideration, which resulted in Vilsack's name being removed from Obama's short list of candidates. Foodies let down their guard, excited by the possibility of having a voice in this discussion, and then Vilsack was quickly appointed. Two years into the job, he's tried to be a proponent of both organic and GE foods, in a kind of separate but equal way he calls "coexistence." This ruse depends on the belief that it is not only possible to keep GE and non-GE DNA separate, but that the United States will succeed in doing so. It's kind of like believing the lion will quietly lie down next to the lamb, and not maul it at the first opportunity.

According to a Jan. 24 statement from Whole Foods, "The policy set for GE alfalfa will most likely guide policies for other GE crops as well. True coexistence is a must." Among the food far left, like the Organic Consumers Association, the prospect of coexistence is as divisive as a two-state solution in the Middle East, and Whole Foods becomes the enemy by voicing hope that coexistence is even possible.

This is understandable. The deregulation of GE alfalfa is a step toward the GE equivalent of a single-state solution to our food system, where the possibility of non-genetically engineered food options may no longer exist. And if history is any guide, victims of genetic contamination will not only have no legal recourse, but may even face Monsanto lawsuits for illegal use of the company's patented genes.

Kristina Hubbard, director of advocacy for the Organic Seed Alliance, points out that deregulation of GE alfalfa puts conventional farmers at risk as well. Via e-mail she told me:

"We believe USDA's decision to deregulate alfalfa puts the integrity of organic and non-genetically engineered seed—and thus the integrity of organic food—at risk. While the media paints this as organic versus biotechnology, it's important to note that conventional producers, including exporters, also feel threatened by GE alfalfa. In fact, the lead plaintiff in the alfalfa lawsuit is a conventional seed producer. I represent organic interests at OSA, but I've noticed that more conventional stakeholders are standing up in opposition to GE alfalfa than any other GE crop type (i.e., corn, soy, etc.) that has been deregulated."

The divide between organic and conventional is at the level of choosing between extra labor and chemicals. These are important distinctions, but what's different about GE seeds is they have the potential to cause drastic problems in other fields, potentially anywhere in the world. They can take away choices available to other farmers as well as entire industries, like organic dairy. If and when GE alfalfa seed is actually planted, it will be interesting to see how long it takes before evidence of Roundup Ready genes start to show up in organic milk.


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