Why You Should Care About Genetically Modified Alfalfa

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Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack decided last week to fully deregulate the planting of alfalfa genetically modified to resist the spraying of Roundup herbicide, so why should you care?

You might argue over whether Roundup Ready alfalfa is safe or not. But long before that argument's settled, organic farmers will face major economic losses.

This move had been opposed by organic farmers and consumers because of the strong possibility that genetically modified alfalfa will cross-pollinate non-GM alfalfa. This has been recognized by the Supreme Court as potentially harmful to the organics sector, since organic foods cannot be produced with genetically modified crops. Once organic livestock are fed GM alfalfa, they can no longer be called organic.

The only appeasement the USDA offered were panels on studying ways to prevent contamination from occurring in the future. But this seems akin to studying ways to protect a forest after loggers have been allowed to cut down the trees.

The decision was a stunning reversal of a more measured approach that Vilsack appeared to be taking in December, when the USDA talked about considering the impact of the GM crop on other sectors of agriculture. But that was before he faced an uproar from the GM industry and the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal for playing nice with organic farmers. As George Siemon, head of the Organic Valley dairy co-operative, said:

The biotech industry has waged a complete war on the Secretary of Agriculture for ... the consideration of a co-existence proposal. They used all their influence to have the Secretary's job challenged. There here have been op-eds in major papers and magazines ("Sack Vilsack," Forbes), special meetings with the White House, grilling by the Justice Department, endless lobbying, and on Thursday of last week, a Congressional member forum was held where the Secretary was taken to the wood shed and asked repeatedly why he had not approved RR-alfalfa sooner. All this for simply opening the coexistence conversation and acknowledging that property rights and other markets should be considered.

And as Liana Hoodes, director of the National Organic Coalition, said: "Organic farmers and others are now left, once again, having to take all the precautions while biotech takes little responsibility."

So what's the potential impact?

1. Less organic forage crops. Why would any farmer plant organic alfalfa when he knows a farmer nearby is planting GM alfalfa? Not only will his costs be higher in terms of cultivating an organic crop, but the possibility now exists that the crop will not be organic once it's harvested. So why bother?

2. Fewer organic dairy farmers. Organic dairy farmers plant alfalfa in fields where their cows graze, but they may also buy hay for winter. With fewer sources of organic forages, costs for organic dairy farmers will rise. What's the smartest decision here? Reduce your risk by avoiding the organic market altogether. Or maybe buy your organic forage crops from China, as people have been doing with soybeans.

3. Higher prices for organic consumers. If the supply of organic forages falls, the cost will rise. Organic dairy farmers will either be squeezed and go under or organic milk prices will rise. The impact: higher prices at the checkout counter for moms and dads buying organic milk for their kids. (Or maybe we'll see more imports of organic milk powder from nations with stricter GM controls to keep the market going.)

4. Less investment in organic meat. Organic meat has been a fast-growing sector of the market, but why would anyone invest in this business if you could be disqualified by contaminated feed? The rational business decision would be to ignore the U.S. and invest in organic operations outside the U.S.—Uruguay anyone?

5. Fewer conventional export opportunities. The contamination of rice fields by GM test plots in Louisiana led to multimillion dollar law suits. Why? Conventional rice farmers lost markets in countries that didn't want to import GM rice. The same could be true of forages—that is, unless the U.S. is successful in getting the rest of the world to buy GM crops, as the State Department is hoping.

Now you might argue over whether Roundup Ready alfalfa is safe or not. But long before that argument's settled, organic farmers will face major economic losses—the same small farmers that the USDA likes to present as poster children for agriculture.

The other possibility is that organic farmers, certifiers, processors, retailers, and consumers knowingly accept some degree of genetically modified crops—despite regulations preventing it. Either way, consumers will take a hit. In what way or how big a hit? Only time will tell.


This post also appears on chewswise.com.

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Samuel Fromartz is a Washington-based writer focusing on food, the environment, and business. He is the author of Organic, Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew and is currently working on a book about bakers and bread.

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