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Steve Gilman
NOFA-IC Policy Coordinator

Just before the 2010 Christmas Holiday, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a 2300 page Supreme Court-ordered Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and via conference call launched immediate plans for deregulating Monsanto's genetically engineered Roundup Ready Alfalfa. Agriculture Secretary Vilsack also announced a general stakeholder meeting, hastily scheduled to occur a few days later in Washington.

USDA further proclaimed they were looking to wrap up discussions on going forward with establishing a "coexistence" plan governing GE and organic/non-GE alfalfa soon after January 24th, the earliest possible release date for the Record of Decision, and in time for spring planting across the country. After years of Court activity, a period of public comment and months more of behind-the-scenes maneuvering - things were suddenly on the fast track. Biotech reps and organic invitees alike were left to hurriedly readjust their travel plans, digest the voluminous EIS parameters and get to D.C. for the meeting.

USDA's Options
As presented in the EIS and laid out in their announcements, USDA stated they were only considering two out of three of their initial options - and have already decided on going forward with the coexistence plan outlined under Option 3:

  • 1. Continue to regulate GE alfalfa - which means it would not be legal to plant. THIS OPTION HAS BEEN RULED OUT AND IS OFF THE TABLE. Further legal action could revitalize this option, however.
  • 2. Allow GE alfalfa to be planted anywhere in the U.S. without any restrictions. THIS IS THE OPTION DEMANDED BY THE BIOTECH INDUSTRY.
  • 3. Allow GE alfalfa to be planted under certain isolation conditions that vary in different parts of the country. THIS IS USDA'S HIGHLY CONTROVERSIAL COEXISTENCE OPTION, NOT FAVORED BY EITHER ORGANIC OR BIOTECH.

And so, as the most powerful long-time proponent of GE crops in the country, USDA finds themselves under the gun to comply with the Supreme Court ruling that recognizes organic and non-GE farmers face significant damages and that some form of regulatory management is required to protect them. Forced into this uneasy position between a rocky cliff and a hellish hard place, USDA may easily face further lawsuits from both sides. The biotech industry sees no reason to now have to regulate GE alfalfa after years of governmental carte blanche allowing the unrestrained planting of GE corn, cotton and soy. And the organic position is buttressed by mountain of scientific studies documenting the promiscuous nature of gene flow in crops, along with endemic mix-ups and comingling in the seed handling system (as with StarLink corn and LibertyLink rice) with plenty of evidence that coexistence between biotech and organic essentially means widespread crop contamination and economic damage for organic farmers and markets.

There's plenty of big bucks involved. Alfalfa is the nation's 3rd most valuable crop worth $8 billion a year and it's the 4th largest crop, planted on over 21 million acres. Forage and hay is a primary feed crop for dairy cows and beef cattle as well as pork, lamb, and sheep. And it's not just for livestock - some vegetable farmers use the hay as mulch and alfalfa meal as a soil amendment, while sprouts constitute an important sector of the salad market. It also plays a major role in honey production.

Organic standards do not allow the use of GE crops and certified organic is the only marketing label that certifies GE-free food. In the face of likely GE contamination the purity of organic milk from alfalfa-fed dairy cows is a major concern. Milk is a primary entry product and mainstay for many U.S. consumers in the organic market and GE contamination would cause severe economic injury to farmers and have a devastating effect on the viability and integrity of the organic label. There are also test-verified GE-free domestic and world markets in Asia and Europe that would stop buying from US farmers whose crops are contaminated by GE alfalfa

Taking it to the Courts
If it were left up to USDA, GE alfalfa approval would have just become another rubber-stamp exercise in biotech business-as-usual. However, NOFA's fellow National Organic Coalition member, the Center for Food Safety (CFS), filed a lawsuit in 2006 on behalf of a coalition of non-profits and farmers who wished to maintain the choice to plant non-GE alfalfa. The suit argued that USDA wrongly allowed the commercial release of GE alfalfa (the first commercial release of a GE perennial crop) and failed to evaluate the public health, environmental, and economic consequences of the release. They also contended that USDA failed to address the potential "super weed" impacts of the increased use of Roundup on alfalfa, nor did they consider issues relating to cross-pollination of wild relatives of alfalfa.

CFS was victorious in this case and they subsequently won two appeals brought by Monsanto in the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in 2008 and again in 2009. Seeing a major threat to their plans for releasing more GE crops, including GE sugar beets, in 2010 the gigantic Monsanto legal department geared up and appealed the case to the Supreme Court -- the first ever case in the nation's highest court with a GE crop on the docket. In a cliffhanger, the Supreme Court ruled in June 2010 that the selling and planting of Roundup Ready Alfalfa is illegal until a full and adequate Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is filed by USDA and they create a viable deregulation plan. The Court further recognized that GE contamination is a threat to organic and conventional farmers and allows them to challenge future biotech commercialization in court. They also ruled that USDA's EIS is subject to legal challenge.

Despite these legal setbacks Monsanto is used to getting its way, however, and they have the political and financial muscle to force legislative and agency outcomes to their liking. According to the latest available information from Sourcewatch, Monsanto spent more than $4.5 million lobbying and nearly $200,000 on political donations in 2007/2008. And out of the blue in mid-January the new Republican-controlled House Agriculture Committee announced a public forum scheduled later this month "to review the biotechnology product regulatory review process".

Welcome to the GE "Sacrifice Zones"

Under their Third Option, USDA "describes a combination of isolation distances and geographic restrictions on hay and seed production to address and resolve coexistence issues and concerns about risks of cross pollination and other potential impacts to conventional, and organic alfalfa producers while allowing the commercialization of GT alfalfa." USDA proposes to divide the country up into zones where different rules apply for how GE alfalfa seed forage and hay could be grown - allowing contamination in some zones and issuing planting restrictions in others.

Type Seed Forage
Tier 1 States (no seed) No seed grown No limits
Tier 2 States (seed but less than 1% of US total) Isolation distances of 5 miles between GT alfalfa and conventional alfalfa. If planted within 165 ft. of a seed field, must be harvested at or before 10% bloom.
Tier 3 States (more than 1% of all US total seed) Isolation distances of 5 miles between GT alfalfa and conventional alfalfa. Can not be planted in counties where seed is grown. If GT alfalfa forage field located within 165 ft. of a conventional alfalfa seed field (such as at county borders) the GT alfalfa grower must harvest forage at or before 10% bloom.

Organic activists quickly pounced on this USDA scheme as unworkable, unfair and unable to contain GE alfalfa and prevent contamination. In effect, the Tier 1 states become totally unregulated "sacrifice zones" that hold zero protections for organic farmers who become contaminated by GE alfalfa. This zone encompasses every NOFA state-- all of New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey and parts of New York as well as Maine, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Alaska, and Hawaii.

For major alfalfa growing states that fall under Tier 1 and Tier 2, USDA relies on a 5 mile isolation distance for GE seed production even though a paper they cite in their EIS shows that bees forage much further than that and compared to other pollinators honeybees were found to have a higher relative transfer rate of transgenic pollen. Further, for forage distances research shows there is still significant gene flow beyond a 165 foot isolation distance. Under the USDA plan, therefore, the whole country becomes a sacrifice zone.

Instructions to hammer out a compromise

USDA is rapidly ramming this "solution" through the agency decision process. They are under tremendous pressure from the biotech industry and agribusiness to completely deregulate GE crops from one side with the Supreme Court decision protecting organic on the other. And GE Alfalfa is the all-important test case - waiting in the wings is a list of other GE crops coming along in the biotech pipeline. USDA also faces a Court ruling from a separate lawsuit (brought by CFS, the Organic Seed Alliance, the Sierra Club and High Mowing Organic Seeds in VT) requiring the ripping out of the entire U.S. GE sugar beet seed crop for the coming season because USDA ignored the previous rulings and allowed the GE crop to be grown without any environmental review.

At USDA's hastily convened D.C. meeting on December 20th Secretary Vilsack explained the fast track details, took questions and instructed the mix of biotech reps and organic adherents to divide themselves into working groups to come up with a workable 3rd Option. The organic contingent was made up of Organic Trade Association stalwarts including the CEOs of Stoneyfield Yogurt, Organic Valley and Whole Foods along with advocacy groups like Beyond Pesticides, the National Cooperative Grocer's Association and the National Organic Coalition. With the big exception of Fred Kirschenmann who joined in by phone, farmers were not at the table.

While organic coalition members have shown up at the table to present the case for organic, there are no illusions that coexistence with GE as defined by Biotech industry and USDA parameters is at all possible. This process, however, has offered an opportunity to define absolute safeguards that organic must have in place if any kind of contamination prevention plan goes forward. The full text of the NOC letter to Sec. Vilsack outlining this minimum is posted at the NOC website under Policy Comments at:

The development of a workable and comprehensive USDA GMO Contamination Prevention Plan should specifically include, at least the following Seven Point Plan:

1. Establishment of a fully distinct and separate USDA public cultivar and breeds Institute to ensure that farmers have elite public cultivar and breeding choices that are not genetically modified and that germplasm collections are free of GMO contamination.

2. Creation of a Contamination Compensation Fund in FSA or RMA funded by GMO patent holders and based upon their strict liability. This would provide immediate assistance to all farmers and other supply chain participants contaminated by GMOs, pending further necessary remedies of law and equity. Such a Fund would establish costs associated with the prevention of GMO commingling and contamination from seed to table and would include both perpetual type costs as well as identity preserved price differential costs for organic and other non-GMO.

3. Ongoing GM crop regulation, including the complete elimination of deregulated GM crop status; including prior deregulations and on-going oversight and public evaluations of compliance and enforcement.

4. Comprehensive, independent, longitudinal studies on the health impacts of eating GMOs and on the environmental and socio-economic impacts of release prior to GM crop approvals.

5. Prohibition on the growing of GM crops that are deemed too promiscuous to prevent GMO Contamination.

6. Mitigation of food security risks associated with the concentration of any sector of our food system in the hands of a few companies or with the use of one food production technology or patented seeds or genotypes to the near exclusion of all others.

7. Institution of an immediate labeling protocol for all GM crops, products, and ingredients in close collaboration with other agencies as required.

While fraught with dire implications and outcomes this presents a tremendous opportunity for Organic to finally contain and control GE crops.

This page was last modified on January 17, 2011 at 7:10:51 PM.

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