by Marion Nestle
Jan 11 2011

Is GM alfalfa the new Cold War? USDA urges peaceful coexistence.

The USDA seems to be paving the way for approval of genetically modified (GM) alfalfa with pleas for coexistence and cooperation. These will be needed.  Organic alfalfa is the mainstay of organic animal feed.  Organic standards exclude GM.  But pollen from GM alfalfa transmits GM genes to organic alfalfa.

In releasing the Environmental Impact Statement on GM alfalfa, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack used Cold War rhetoric:

We have seen rapid adoption of biotechnology in agriculture, along with the rise of organic and non-genetically engineered sectors over the last several decades… While the growth in all these areas is great for agriculture, it has also led, at times, to conflict or, at best, an uneasy coexistence between the different ways of growing crops. We need to address these challenges and develop a sensible path forward for strengthening coexistence of all segments of agriculture in our country.

USDA is working hard on this one.  It held a stakeholders meeting to discuss the issues.  Secretary Vilsack also wrote an open letter to stakeholders pressing the need for coexistence:

The rapid adoption of GE crops has clashed with the rapid expansion of demand for organic and other non-GE products. This clash led to litigation and uncertainty. Such litigation will potentially lead to the courts deciding who gets to farm their way and who will be prevented from doing so.

Regrettably, what the criticism we have received on our GE alfalfa approach suggests, is how comfortable we have become with litigation – with one side winning and one side losing – and how difficult it is to pursue compromise. Surely, there is a better way, a solution that acknowledges agriculture’s complexity, while celebrating and promoting its diversity.

By continuing to bring stakeholders together in an attempt to find common ground where the balanced interests of all sides could be advanced, we at USDA are striving to lead an effort to forge a new paradigm based on coexistence and cooperation. If successful, this effort can ensure that all forms of agriculture thrive so that food can remain abundant, affordable, and safe.

The USDA is not going to back down on GM.  But I see real progress here.  At least—and at last—USDA recognizes the threat of GM agriculture to organic production.

We have an obligation to carefully consider…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.

I’m guessing USDA will approve GM alfalfa.  Will approval include mandatory—and enforceable—safeguards to protect organic production?  Let’s hope.

Addition: Guess what.  Farm groups supporting GM alfalfa strongly object to Vilsack’s “coexistence” initiative.   In a  letter, the groups argue that the coexistence policy could “adversely impact all producers of biotech crops, as well as the integrity of the American agriculture system.”

Noting that USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service concluded that RR alfalfa does not pose a plant pest risk, the groups accuse the Department of using motives beyond science to impose “unprecedented” conditions on alfalfa growers that they say may include isolation distances and geographic planting restrictions.

By “alfalfa growers,” they do not mean organic. Here’s who signed the letter:

  • American Farm Bureau Federation
  • American Soybean Association
  • National Cotton Council
  • National Association of Wheat Growers
  • National Council of Farmer Cooperatives
  • USA Rice Federation
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  • Anthro

    Does it really matter? What is the science on this? I, too, have an emotional reaction to GM–but I am determined to rely on the science. I get a lot of email asking me to sign petitions on this issue, but no one presents a scientific argument. The closest I can get is that we need to stop Monsanto and its ilk from destroying any semblance of traditional agriculture, but I’m not even sure that these issues are closely related enough to think that fixing one will solve the other!

    Can anyone recommend any sources for clarity? I went to hear a plant biologist speak and he was repeatedly interrupted from loud dissenters whose arguments revolved around ethics, not science. I am concerned about the intersection of these issues, but I want to base my ethics on science, not emotion.

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  • Kat Eutsler

    Hi Anthro,

    It is hard to present science that goes against a multi-billion dollar company especially when that company relies on that science not existing.


    Essentially, the millennial generation and below ARE the lab rats. We won’t know how it plays out until generations from now.

    I suggest reading Jeffrey Smith’s book: Seeds of Deception and checking out his website:

    Personally, I choose to eat foods that have not been sprayed with pesticides. GM seeds allow spraying of pesticides directly on the plant itself and in higher quantities.

    Other things to consider are whether a select few corporations should control the majority of seeds. and Weed and pest resistance ie bigger stronger weeds and pests.

    Nature is a strong intuitive force which science may never catch up with.

    Happy researching!


  • Kat Eutsler

    You may also want to check out these facts on Secretary Vilsack:

    It’s not exactly an unbiased, fair war. But we can choose to win daily battles by supporting non-GM foods.

    Hope all of this helps!

  • Anthro

    Oh, dear, I have been totally misunderstood! When I said science, I meant real science, peer-reviewed, and such.

    There is no reason for scientists to think that GM is harmful, but Monsanto takes the science and abuses it. I am angry at Monsanto, not science. To demand that science keep devising tests for something that shows no reason to be tested is to demonstrate a lack of understanding about how science works. The statement quoted from Dr. Oz’s show is correct–you can’t test this on humans–think about it! You would be intentionally harming half the participants if there really was a dangerous compound involved.

    My dilemma is how can we support science without approving of what Monsanto does with that science, and how can the scientists absolve themselves from what Monsanto does with their work?

    Thanks for the suggestions, though; I will take a look at the recommended book by Jeffrey Smith.

  • Anthro

    Sorry Kat, Smith is a quack along with Mercola and Adams (whom he promotes on his site). These people know nothing about science and spread dangerous quackery to line their own pockets. People die from their advice because they do not seek appropriate medical help in time. I doubt if one single thing at that site can be verified by any actual published, peer-reviewed science? Doubt it.

    My questions about GM pertain to scientific nuance and the ethics of its relationship to corporate abuse of science. They do not veer into the realm of alternative nonsense–as does Dr. Oz and his reiki practitioner wife. I fear you will find me intolerant, but I long ago gave up pretending to be interested in this rubbish. Believe what you wish, that’s your right, but don’t confuse it with real science or claim that “the mysteries of nature” supersede science somehow. GM gives me the weebie-jeebies sometimes, but that’s why I’m trying to educate myself about it–I don’t want to go on like some old lady in 1900 being afraid to install electricity in my house!

  • Andrew B

    I couldn’t agree with you more. “experts” like smith use fear and rhetoric, not science. If someone could provide me with 1 scientifically sound journal article that proves GMO’s are harmful, then as a man of science I would reconsider my position.

  • Lin

    Anthro and Andrew
    Not sure what the situation is in the rest of the world, but in Australia, the government has been steadily de-funding independent university research in all areas for a couple of decades, demanding that researchers collaborate with industry for an ever-increasing proportion of their funding.
    There have been many instances of research money stopping as soon as unwanted findings start to appear, and when the money stops, so does the research. There is also a problem in publishing anything that challenges the accepted wisdom, as frequently those who are reviewing your work are those whose wisdom you are questioning. There are examples in Australia of people who have won Nobel prizes, but whose research was stifled by the establishment within peer reviewed journals for decades.
    There are also concerns that corporations in the biotech and medical fields have significant influence over what is published or not published. If you can stop people asking the right questions, and filter publication of anything that does not fit your view of the world, you can control the debate.
    Recent revelations by Wikileaks that the US government is bullying its “allies” to accept GM crops, and seeking to punish and make examples of those who do not capitulate does not inspire much confidence that we are being told the whole truth about GM organisms either.
    In an ideal world, it would be nice to be able to rely on scientific journals, but as a disillusioned former scientist, I will remain sceptical about the published data re health and environmental effects of GM food crops until I can read publications from some well funded and financially independent research groups, which I still have not seen.

  • Kat Eutsler

    Lin, Great points. Do you have the link for the GM crop wikileak article?

  • Pete

    Lin – that sounds awfully similar to how I believe the link between dietary fat, cholesterol and heart disease came about. You can’t have studies for everything, for many reasons, but you can play it safe. Meaning, if it ain’t broke, why fix it. If we subsidize food, then this whole GM “feed the world” angle is unjustified. We can already feed the world. I mean, nearly 4,000 cals a day available for each American? That’s ridiculous considering some people around the world barely get that in a week (even if 1,000 of it is added sugar thats a lot). So why exactly do we NEED to GM crops in the first place? There really is only one reason – so a corporation can own the crop, even the entire species. And this is more a sign of the apocalypse than birds falling from the sky. Think about it. Corporations can patent living organisms – seeds, bacteria… Thats straight up scifi scary.

  • Kat Eutsler

    Anthro, I find it hard to believe that in 14 minutes you checked out Smith’s book and came to the conclusion that he is a “quack”. Who do you work for?

  • Lin
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  • Shannon

    I don’t understand how the author is seeing progress? And the cavalier “let’s hope” attitude is appalling. Instead of “hoping” let’s do some protesting. Marching. Pitchforking. This is the future of your *children* they are toying with, people.

  • Let us not let ourselves be diverted over arguments about valid science. We should all be aware by now that politics mostly trumps science, and has for years. This ruling is about politics, policy and big money. Vilsik is a darling of the biotech industry, and some of his best friends are lobbyists for Monsanto. Despite some 250,000 letters of concern by citizens about this alfalfa ruling, it passed. Surprised?

    Several groups should be greatly concerned about this ruling: Conventional and organic alfalfa farmers, organic dairy producers, and organic consumers.

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