Farmers and eaters were dealt a terrible blow last week when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) fully deregulated genetically engineered (GE) Roundup Ready alfalfa. Roundup Ready alfalfa, to be sold by Monsanto, is genetically engineered to withstand the herbicide Roundup (also, conveniently, sold by Monsanto). The move means the GE variety can be planted by farmers as early as this spring, with no restrictions, no labeling and no protections for farmers who may be harmed.
First introduced in 2007, GE alfalfa has been off the market since May 3 of that year, when a federal district judge banned the sale or planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa until the USDA conducted a full environmental impact statement (EIS), as they are required to do before approval of such a novel crop. An EIS is a report showing the positive and negative impacts of a proposed action to the environment. In theory, an EIS that shows that the negative impacts of a new technology outweigh its benefits should keep that technology out of the fields, at least until there are plans in place to mitigate the negative impacts. Unfortunately, that’s not the case for GE alfalfa. The EIS has now been completed, and it identifies numerous risks and questions that do not yet have answers.
In fact, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack wrote an open letter in December 2010 addressing the risks of GE alfalfa, stating “we have an obligation to carefully consider USDA’s 2,300 page EIS, which acknowledges the potential of cross-fertilization to non-GE alfalfa from GE alfalfa - a significant concern for farmers who produce for non-GE markets at home and abroad.” Nonetheless, the USDA has green-lighted the planting of GE alfalfa, putting the livelihoods of farmers at risk and gambling with the health of our planet and everyone who eats.
So What? I Don’t Eat Alfalfa.
I know what you’re thinking, aside from the occasional alfalfa sprouts on your salad, you don’t eat much alfalfa so how will this affect you? Alfalfa is the fourth largest crop grown in the U.S. (behind corn, soybeans and wheat) and it’s most commonly used to feed dairy cows and cattle. So if you drink milk or eat beef, you’ll be interacting with GE alfalfa along your food chain. You won’t ever know for sure when you’re eating GE alfalfa, though, since there is no requirement that food made with GE ingredients be labeled as such (thus you’re likely unknowingly already ingesting Monsanto’s GE corn and soy on a daily basis). Scientists have warned that we still don’t know the risks to humans ingesting foods made with genetically engineered crops; long-term studies have not been carried out. For this reason, many countries, including the countries of the European Union, Japan, Australia and Brazil, have banned genetically engineered foods altogether.
So maybe you’re thinking, It’s OK, I only drink organic milk and eat organic meat, which can’t contain GE ingredients. Think again. Alfalfa is pollinated by bees, which generally cover a five-mile range when they go about the business of pollination. They buzz from plant to plant, collecting pollen and spreading it from one plant to another--possibly from one GE alfalfa plant to an organic alfalfa plant. This is cross-pollination, the very thing that Secretary Vilsack acknowledged is a huge problem without a solution. This is dangerous for a number of reasons: (1) the GE technology is not contained--it can now spread free and wild, without regard to property lines or fences; (2) any farmer unknowingly “possessing” those GE genes in a plant on his/her field, can be (and many have been) sued by Monsanto for possessing their technology without a license; and (3) if that farmer was farming organically, his/her organic certification is now potentially lost and Monsanto has no obligation to compensate him/her for their loss. Once contaminated, a farmers’ once-organic alfalfa crop risks not being certified organic, which means it can no longer be sold at the organic premium or be fed to organic dairy and beef cows. The end result: lost income for farmers and fewer choices for both farmers and consumers.
And this doesn’t just affect organic farmers; conventional farmers have been hurt by GE contamination too. Each time GE contamination has been found to happen, in the case of Starlink GE corn, for instance, export markets have turned away US farmers’ crops. When export markets close, it’s not just the individual farmers who are impacted but the entire US economy.
Why Would the USDA Put So Much At Risk?
The Wall Street Journal reports that the order to deregulate Roundup Ready alfalfa came from President Obama, “as part of the administration's review of ‘burdensome’ regulation.” The Wall Street Journal further reports, “The Obama administration said earlier this month it is reviewing all proposed government regulation to weed out proposals that are overly burdensome to businesses—part of a broader effort to repair relations with employers and industry.” According to the article, Monsanto’s GE sugar beets could be approved within the next week.
A look at Monsanto’s earnings reports show that they have recently struggled with decreasing sales of Roundup as other pesticides have come on the market at a lower price tag. Now with Roundup Ready alfalfa on the market, Monsanto can expect not only increased profits due to sale of its new seeds, but also increased sales of Roundup pesticide to douse all those new seeds.
Currently alfalfa is often grown without pesticides, using instead a system of crop rotation to manage pests. So not only has the USDA and the Obama Administration sold out to Monsanto to enhance the profits of this already mammoth corporation (who, by the way, was the focus of much scrutiny in this past year’s Department of Justice/USDA examination of antitrust and anti-competitive conduct in agriculture), but they’re encouraging the application of more chemicals to our farmland and food. This in spite of the fact that there is growing evidence that Roundup Ready varieties of corn and soy have created “superweeds” that are resistant to herbicides.
What Can You Do?
Last spring the USDA asked for comments about GE alfalfa and more than 200,000 concerned farmers and eaters made their voices heard. Now we need to make sure that President Obama hears from us! Contact President Obama directly to demand that he stop Roundup Ready alfalfa from hurting farmers, eaters and our environment.