USDA caves to industry pressure, approves GM alfalfa without restrictions

Vilsack backtracks on“coexistence” stand, puts interests of biotech companies above those of farmers and the public; more lawsuits likely

By Ken Roseboro

After initially considering restrictions on plantings of genetically modified Roundup Ready alfalfa, US Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack capitulated to the demands of pro-GMO groups and deregulated the crop without restrictions.

Rogue agency”

USDA’s decision was met with outrage from supporters of organic and conventional, non-GMO agriculture.

“USDA has become a rogue agency in its regulation of biotech crops and its decision comes despite increasing evidence that GM alfalfa will threaten the rights of farmers and consumers, as well as damage the environment,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director for the Center for Food Safety.

“We in the farm sector are dissatisfied but not surprised at the lack of courage from USDA to stop Roundup Ready alfalfa and defend family farmers,” said Pat Trask, conventional alfalfa grower and plaintiff in a lawsuit to stop GM alfalfa.

The Organic Trade Association (OTA) was “deeply disappointed” that the agency was failing to protect farmer and consumer choice. “The organic standards prohibit the use of genetic engineering, and consumers will not tolerate the accidental presence of genetic engineered materials in organic products yet GE crops continue to proliferate unchecked,” said Christine Bushway, OTA’s executive director and CEO.

New paradigm of coexistence?”

OTA and other groups were disappointed because USDA had considered deregulating the crop with restrictions as a way to protect markets for non-GMO and organic alfalfa. In December, USDA announced that it would decide on one of two options to approve GM alfalfa: full deregulation or partial deregulation with restrictions on where and how the crop can be grown.

Vilsack then called a meeting of stakeholders from biotech, organic, and conventional non-GMO groups to discuss ways for coexisting on alfalfa.

In a letter to stakeholders, Vilsack said he wanted to forge “a new paradigm based on coexistence and cooperation” so that all agricultural segments can thrive.

The biotechnology industry and major farm groups vehemently opposed Vilsack’s coexistence initiative, seeing it as a change to the agency’s current rubber stamp approval policy of GM crops. Seven farm groups and the Biotechnology Industry Organization sent a letter to President Obama objecting to USDA’s coexistence policy. Vilsack was summoned to face a hostile House Agriculture Committee that challenged his authority to restrict plantings of a GM crop.

Caving into special interests”

Observers say Vilsack bowed to industry pressure and decided on full deregulation. “Approving the unrestricted planting of GM alfalfa is clearly a case of USDA caving in to special interests over public good,” said Liana Hoodes, director of the National Organic Coalition (NOC).

Last spring more than 200,000 people submitted comments to the USDA objecting to the conclusions of the agency’s draft environmental impact statement (EIS) of GM alfalfa. Another 250,000 public comments were submitted following the release of the final EIS with the vast majority opposing deregulation.

“Clearly the USDA was not listening to the public or farmers but rather to just a handful of corporations,” Kimbrell said.

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Representative Peter DeFazio (D-Or.) released a joint statement, saying what began as a search for a workable compromise ended as a “surrender to business as usual for the biotech industry.”

“USDA officials had an opportunity to address the concerns of all farmers, whether they choose to farm genetically altered crops, conventional crops, or organic crops, and to find a way for them to coexist. Instead, what we now have is a setback for the nation’s organic and conventional agriculture sectors. Instead of settling this issue, USDA's decision regrettably guarantees further rounds in the courts.”

Deregulation defies commonsense”

Vilsack said he appreciated the efforts of the Coexistence Working Group “and will continue to provide support to the wide variety of sectors that make American agriculture successful.”

But some who participated in the group felt betrayed. “We appreciate the measures that the Secretary has announced to explore ways to develop the science to protect organic and other non-GM alfalfa farmers from contamination of their crops. However, to institute these measures after the GM alfalfa is deregulated defies commonsense,” said Michael Sligh, founding member of NOC.

Will be back in court”

The burden of preventing GMO contamination continues to fall on organic and non-GMO producers and continued unrestricted deregulation of GM crops will only make GMO contamination problems worse.

Fred Kirschenmann, distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, stopped growing canola on his organic farm because of pollen drift from GM canola. If GM alfalfa and wheat cause the same harm, he says, “We are out of business.”

Vilsack had hoped his coexistence initiative would stop lawsuits to ban GM crops, but his backtracking “business as usual” decision on GM alfalfa ensures future legal battles.

“We will be back in court representing the interest of farmers, preservation of the environment, and consumer choice,” Kimbrell said.

“Clearly the biotech industry will ultimately be held responsible for negative impacts of their technology,” says Charles Benbrook, chief scientist at the Organic Center. “It may take lawsuits or class action lawsuits. The system has to change; it is unjust and not sustainable.”

(Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report, February 2011)