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."
WHAT IT MEANS: The approval of GMO alfalfa is clearly not the people's choice. In fact, more and more people are opting for organic in order to avoid pesticides and GMOs, to the tune of a flourishing $26.6 billion-dollar-a-year organic industry. The USDA's decision has the potential to limit consumers' ability to get the organic food they want. "This creates a perplexing situation, when the market calls for a supply of crops free of genetic engineering. Consumers will not tolerate the accidental presence of genetic engineered materials in organic products, yet GE crops continue to proliferate unchecked," says Christine Bushway, executive director and CEO of the Organic Trade Association. "Preserving market and farmer choice and agricultural diversity are central to USDA’s mission, and to the future of rural American livelihoods," she adds. "This failure to do so will make it increasingly difficult to meet the growing demand for U.S. organic crops."
It's not just an economic thing, either. "We don't know what the impact of allowing GE alfalfa to be released is going to be. We haven't finished the last GE crop experiment imposed on the public, except that the evidence to date isn't good," says Elaine R. Ingham, PhD, chief scientist of the Rodale Institute, an organic research farm. "There is solid evidence that Roundup Ready crops damage animal digestive systems to the point that some animals are uncontrollable and must be put down." When a broad range of animals is harmed by the food fed to them, human health will ultimately be harmed, she adds.
"When genetically engineered alfalfa pollen contaminates your clover, will Monsanto claim they own your clover?"
—Elaine R. Ingham, PhD, chief scientist, Rodale Institute
Expanding the use of GMO crops and the use of Roundup worries toxicology and public health experts for numerous reasons. Ample evidence shows that Roundup inhibits a plant's ability to take up micronutrients essential for human survival. Livestock animals need these nutrients, too, and Jeffrey Smith, founder of The Institute for Responsible Technology, says veterinarians are finding livestock livers' universally low in manganese, a nutrient used in many metabolic processes. This, he says, is likely an affect of the Roundup pesticide and Roundup Ready gene. Roundup is also linked to more than 40 plant diseases, and the rise of hard-to-kill superweeds. In fact, because Roundup isn't working well on corn, soy, and cotton crops anymore, Monsanto has been forced to pay farmers to use their competitors' toxic pesticides. With Roundup failing, there are patents out to create seeds resistant to 2,4 D pesticide, a carcinogen, meaning more of it could end up in our soil and water.
"Hundreds of millions of pounds of Roundup sprayed around the world are taking nutrients out of the food supply," says Smith, author of Seeds of Deception: Exposing Industry and Government Lies About the Safety of the Genetically Engineered Foods You're Eating (Yes! Books, 2003). "Given the toll that Roundup has already taken, and the evidence suggesting it's creating a perfect storm of diseases and disorders in plants, animals, and humans, the only way USDA can justify approval of Roundup Ready alfalfa is by deceiving themselves, or deceiving the American public. Either decision is a disaster."
And it could be a disaster for farmers, too. Smith believes that because of a growing consumer demand for non-GMO products, and the ability to test for GMO contamination, farmers who invest in planting Roundup Ready seeds may go out of business in a few years because no one will want to buy their product. Ingham notes that GE alfalfa will be able to cross-pollinate with an enormous number of plants, asking, "When genetically engineered alfalfa pollen contaminates your clover, will Monsanto claim they own your clover?"
Here's how you can fight back against GMO alfalfa.
• Get the White House on the horn. Nestle says if the rumors are true about Obama pushing for the approval of GMO alfalfa that consumers don't want, it's time to let the White House, in no uncertain terms, know that grassroots constituents do not like the decision. Here's how to contact the president.
• Pressure dairies. Don't just call the president, call the dairy that supplies your milk, too. And go out of your way to buy organic, a system in which GMO seeds and pesticides are banned. If you can't swing that, conventional non-GMO dairy, beef, and honey is another route, although, unless it's also organic, it won't be pesticide-free. (Check out the Non-GMO Project for participating companies.)
• Join with others. Food & Water Watch has launched a campaign to urge the president to overrule the USDA's decision to allow GMO alfalfa plantings without any protections for organic farmers and consumers.