by Marion Nestle
Jan 28 2011

USDA approves controversial GM alfalfa

In an action long expected, the USDA approved commercial production of genetically modified alfalfa.

The announcement makes it clear that USDA did not do this lightly.  The agency was well aware of the concerns of organic farmers that GM alfalfa could—and will—contaminate their fields.

Secretary Vilsack said:

After conducting a thorough and transparent examination of alfalfa through a multi-alternative environmental impact statement (EIS) and several public comment opportunities, APHIS has determined that Roundup Ready alfalfa is as safe as traditionally bred alfalfa…All of the alfalfa production stakeholders involved in this issue have stressed their willingness to work together to find solutions.

…USDA brought together a diverse group of stakeholders to discuss feasible strategies for coexistence between genetically engineered (GE), organic, and other non-GE stakeholders.

…In response to the request for support from its stakeholders, USDA is taking a number of steps, including:

  • Reestablishing two important USDA advisory committees – Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture, and the National Genetic Resources Advisory Committee.
  • Conducting research into areas such as ensuring the genetic integrity, production and preservation of alfalfa seeds entrusted to the germplasm system;
  • Refining and extending current models of gene flow in alfalfa;
  • Requesting proposals through the Small Business Innovation Research program to improve handling of forage seeds and detection of transgenes in alfalfa seeds and hay; and,
  • Providing voluntary, third-party audits and verification of industry-led stewardship initiatives.

USDA seems to think it has brokered “peaceful coexistence” (see previous post).  Skeptics, take note.

The USDA is providing more information about this decision online .  It also has issued a Q and A.  Here’s the Federal Register notice.

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  • http://www.sweettaterblog.com Katie (Sweet Tater)

    yikes.

  • MA

    Sad.

  • Subvert

    Did we really expect anything different from a department of a government that exists to serve it’s corporate owners?

  • Anthro

    I’m going out on a limb here and supporting this decision. This DOES NOT mean that I support much at all of what Monsanto and other BigAg groups get up to!

    The thing that pushed me to this decision is that there simply is no evidence that the GM alfalfa is harmful to humans, so why not change the organic standard, which seems only to be based on people’s innate fears of GM–WHICH ARE NOT SUPPORTED BY SCIENCE. (Emphasis, not yelling)

    The organic standard that forbids GM is not reasonable.

    This decision really doesn’t harm anyone. Now what it does for Monsanto is another question, but based on the evidence, it is difficult to demonize them on this issue.

    I will accept arguments on this, but please include links to science-based evidence–peer reviewed and published please.

  • Lorraine

    What good is science-based evidence-peer reviewed and published do any of us? Science is forever contradicting itself. What they believe today will be overturned and proven otherwise 5 years from now. The issue is freedom of choice. There is no possible way to guarantee gm anything will not contaminate another farmer’s crop/field. Why must our rights be trumped by the rights of corporations whose only interest is in selling more of their product, ie Roundup? And if GM products are on the up and up why can’t we have labeling to let the consumer know if they are purchasing GM products, giving us the choice!??? This is a new science how can they prove to us what will happen 50 years down the road? The USDA is not interested in the well being of the people, just corporate profit.

  • Pete

    GM is about OWNING life. Period. So long as they can patent genetic modifications and GM life forms EVERYTHING GM must be stopped. Any perceived benefit is a smokescreen. They are laying the foundation/precedent with plants, but this will soon turn to animal and human life as well.

    GM crops don’t need to be bad FOR you to be bad. It’s a simple matter of being able to patent a seed and making all others obsolete. Ironically this is the kind of competition killing trend that conservatives should be whole heartedly against. But alas we have Food Politics (and money).

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  • Jennifer Feeney

    For me it is about three things:

    - Monsanto owns the genes
    - The genes will contaminate non-GMO crops
    - If contaminated, you have no right to grow those crops because Monsanto owns the genes. We’ve seen this before.

    It is not natural to own the genes of crops. For this alone, in my estimation, GMOs cannot be certified organic.

  • Anthro

    @ Jennifer

    Yours is the concern I share the most, but it is a different (but related) argument and one that needs to be addressed by plant biologists. We need to limit Monsanto’s power over farmers (not to be confused with giant agri-businesses), but not throw out the baby with the bath water.

    @Lorraine

    *What good is science-based evidence-peer reviewed and published do any of us?
    >>>It’s achievements are responsible for the much longer lives we all now live–just for starters–to say nothing of the technology that is derived from it, and our understanding of the world around us.

    *Science is forever contradicting itself. What they believe today will be overturned and proven otherwise 5 years from now.
    >>>>>>No, science doesn’t “contradict” itself. Rather, it constantly questions and studies its conclusions in order to improve them. It admits when new findings supplant old ones. You have a profound lack of knowledge about how the scientific method works. This is not an insult, just an observation from someone trained in science.

    *The issue is freedom of choice. There is no possible way to guarantee gm anything will not contaminate another farmer’s crop/field. Why must our rights be trumped by the rights of corporations whose only interest is in selling more of their product, ie Roundup?
    >>>>I’m all for labeling–for choice–NOT for implying there is danger to human health where none has been scientifically established–and the HAVE looked.

    *And if GM products are on the up and up why can’t we have labeling to let the consumer know if they are purchasing GM products, giving us the choice!???
    >>>The answer to this that I got from a plant biologist is that labeling would imply that there is a danger. I disagree with him on that and gave some examples of other labeling situations that I think gave him pause to rethink his stance.

    *This is a new science how can they prove to us what will happen 50 years down the road?
    >>>>>>Plant biology is not that new and has been studied much more than you might think. Take a look at http://www.biofortified.org/about/authors/

    I can’t prove that the sun will come up tomorrow, but science tells me that there is every reason to believe that it will.

    *The USDA is not interested in the well being of the people, just corporate profit

    >>>>>That seems a little too strong. I would agree that their priorities can seem skewed, but the health of the public is there as well. It’s just unfortunate that they politicize it instead of relying on good solid science.

  • Anthro

    @ Pete

    Sorry, I almost forgot you.

    You said:

    *GM is about OWNING life. Period.
    >>>>>That’s way too strong. GM is also about speeding up the millennia old process of improving plants in order to feed an exploding population. It is the corporations, such as Monsanto, that want to “own life”. These are separate issues and I’m all for tackling Big Ag.

    *So long as they can patent genetic modifications and GM life forms EVERYTHING GM must be stopped.

    >>>>Good luck with that. Again, you are rolling the science of plant biology into the same ball with Big Ag. Plant biologists are not the ones getting rich off of their work.

    *Any perceived benefit is a smokescreen. They are laying the foundation/precedent with plants, but this will soon turn to animal and human life as well.
    >>>>That’s already happening.

    *GM crops don’t need to be bad FOR you to be bad.
    >>>>>I agree, but we differ on who to blame for the bad part.

    *It’s a simple matter of being able to patent a seed and making all others obsolete.
    >>>>It’s not so simple, really, but we can change what happens to the science once it is turned into technology–if, as you say, the political will is there. We should be putting pressure on politicians to regulate Monsanto, et al, not to ban the ability of scientists to feed a growing population and develop plants that are less dependent on chemical fertilizers or that use less water and can, therefore, grow in arid regions. This work can help us deal with climate change–another thing the politicians are not addressing.

  • Michael Bulger

    Anthro, just to put things in perspective: From what I understand, herbicides are only used on 7% of alfalfa acres as it is (possibly less). How many of those acres already receive only one application?

    The concern from some areas is that farmers buying this seed will spray more herbicides as a preventative measure that they otherwise would not have taken. Once they begin to talk about the gene-flow preventions breaking down and resistant weeds emerging, opponents of this technology have at least a reasonable argument that Monsanto will not significantly reduce pesticide use and quite possibly will lead to an increase in usage.

    Before we invoke the burgeoning world population as a marketing platform, I think we should consider the economic and social mechanisms that actually lead to malnutrition and starvation. Unfortunately, calorie supply does not seem to be our problem.

  • Anthro

    @Michael Bulger

    A great post and one I can mostly agree with. I know that Monsanto is the bad guy here and I have no quarrel with that. I am only trying to say that I have talked with more than a couple of plant biologists by now and that they are NOT the bad guys. I only used alfalfa as an example and didn’t meant to relate it specifically to pesticide-resistant plants, and thank you for the statistics on that.

    Calorie supply is not a problem here (quite the opposite in fact), but it is in much of the rest of the world. Also, soil, water, and climate change are going to increase hunger issues rapidly as the population continues to rise exponentially.

    I agree that the population issue can easily be used as a faux marketing platform, but I sincerely do not see this from the biologists or the universities where they do their work. Monsanto, again, is another matter. It’s the relationship between the plant biologists and “industry” that I DO have some unresolved issues about. I have argued with the biologists about this from an ethical perspective and have not received entirely satisfactory answers. But I don’t feel I have a complete picture yet as I have only recently started to study this issue beyond my initial emotional repugnance about gene manipulation.

    I appreciate your response and further discussion would be welcome.

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  • Michael Bulger

    @Anthro

    First of all, I have always appreciated your posts on this blog. With that in mind, please allow me to make a few points. I would enjoy discussing this further, but I am limited in my time at the moment. So quickly…

    From what I gather, there is no global shortage of calories. World population growth has actually slowed since the 1970s or so, and agricultural production has managed to outpace demand. Yield has increased without the help of direct genetic modification (a la Monsanto and our friends who develop their products). Traditional breeding techniques and better management of resources, such as water and soil, have proved far more effective and adequate to our needs.

    The problem continues to be poverty. Small gains have been made, but hunger continues to be an issue that arises from lack of purchasing power and the uneven distribution of agricultural production. These are not being solved by this example of biotechnology.

    The current biotechnology available through Monsanto is designed for and implemented upon lands in developed nations, where farmers have capital. I am not one that heaps blame on the plant biologists or imagines some nefarious motivation on their part. I do, however, think that industry is exaggerating their role in reducing world hunger.

    In reports from 2002 and 2006, FAO projects that agricultural production will continue to outpace population. The hunger in the world will continue to be a matter of poverty. With all due respect to the capabilities of plant biologists, their contributions through patented corn, soy, etc. have been minimal and I believe in saying that I am being quite generous. World hunger is being addressed through other means, and I do not think it appropriate for the biotechnology industry to use it as a plank.

    This, of course is my opinion, and I welcome further discussion insofar as my schedule allows. I will include links to the FAO reports to which I referred.

    http://www.fao.org/docrep/003/y6265e/y6265e03.htm
    http://www.fao.org/docrep/004/y3557e/y3557e06.htm

  • Anthro

    @Michael Bulger

    Thank you for your interest in my comments. It’s nice to know they are read with a discerning eye.

    I need to find some references before I say too much, but I want to mention that since the time of the reports you refer to (2002, 2006), the situation, as I have recently discovered, has been altering dramatically. Also, while population growth has slowed, the total population is going to be 9 or 10 billion by 2035 or so and this is going to begin to strain the food supply quickly and dramatically. I have heard this referenced in a number of science podcasts on the BBC, among other places and I will look for specific references.

    Of course, availability of calories is related to poverty and I concede that biotechnology may not directly be solving that problem, but I do think it is the goal of the researchers I have talked to. I have yet to reach a conclusion on the ultimate value of their work, but don’t doubt their sincerity. I think the answer is for a strong government stance (regulation) of Monsanto and others who are using the fruits of the research to further only their own narrow interests at the expense of farmers and the poor. That’s the best I can come up with at this point.

    You may well know more about these issues than I do and I appreciate the discussion. It it probably a lot more complex than can be dealt with in these brief comments. These issues are something I will continue to explore. I only want to be sure that my conclusions are drawn from science based information. I will, in that vein, have a good look at the reports you link to and look for more recent ones as well.

    Thanks for taking the time to weigh in on this.

  • http://redgreenandblue.org/ Jeremy

    This may not go forward just yet: the Center For Food Safety, which has a history of taking on Monsanto and winning, says it’s ready with the next round of litigation to block this.
    See: http://redgreenandblue.org/2011/01/31/monsanto-back-in-court-center-for-food-safety-challenges-gmo-alfalfa-ruling/

  • Daniel K

    With this step, the USDA shows how little it cares for th health of our environment and the health of Americans.

    This ridiculous step shows how much the USDA is in the pocket of multinational corporations, especially MonSatan.

    Poor Choice USDA.

  • Daniel K

    “And if GM products are on the up and up why can’t we have labeling to let the consumer know if they are purchasing GM products, giving us the choice!???”
    >>>… labeling would imply that there is a danger.

    Labeling may imply a danger. But consumers have the right to know and choose! Should we allow clothing manufacturers to leave off the material label? It feels like cotton, or silk, or leather, so it must be? If a tomato looks like a tomato, do we not deserve to know that it was synthesized in a lab and contains genes of another species–or even another kingdom? Buy LOCAL, know your farmer, Organic dairy & Meat (if you consume those) and Organic produce. Not in my food, Monsanto. Just say “No” to GMO!

  • Pete

    @Anthro

    My point is that if you take away the patents Monsanto would
    not be all about GM crops. They’d find another, cheaper way to feed the world (not that the world is in calorie crisis). It’s about profits and control and somebody has to fund the guy that actually does want to feed the world.

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  • Genie

    Visack just ensured himself a job at Monsanto after serving his post.