On Thursday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that the United State Department of Agriculture (USDA) had approved the unrestricted planting of genetically modified alfalfa sold by Monsanto Co. and Forge Genetics, despite protests from organic groups and public health advocates and comments from nearly 250,000 citizens asking the department to keep this GMO genie in its bottle. With this announcement, the Obama administration showed whose side it is on in the battle between proponents of sustainable, organic agriculture and the big businesses that profit from conventional, chemical agriculture. Big Ag won. It wasn't even close.
If you eat meat or dairy, you indirectly consume alfalfa. It is a leading source of hay for cattle. In terms of acreage, alfalfa is the United States' fourth biggest crop behind corn, soybeans, and wheat. It is also notoriously promiscuous, and its pollen can be carried by bees and other insects for five miles, making it all but certain that the GMO crop, designed to survive applications of Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, will contaminate much of the country's conventional alfalfa. Because GMO products are not allowed in USDA-certified foods, it could become all but impossible to produce organic milk and meat in many areas unless organic farmers switch to less desirable sources of forage.
Earlier, the USDA said that it was weighing three options: (1) complete deregulation of GM alfalfa; (2) allowing it to be planted but requiring five-mile buffers between it and non-GM alfalfa; and (3) allowing unrestricted planting except in seed-growing regions to prevent contamination. Vilsack went for the first: the most Big-Ag-friendly choice.
"This is very disappointing," said Will Fantle, co-director of the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute, an organic and small-farm watchdog group that is a plaintiff in a lawsuit brought against the USDA claiming that it did not take the required legal steps before originally approving GM alfalfa in 2007. "Tens of thousands of people spoke out against this contamination," Fantle said. "They were completely ignored. It looks like the biotech industry has all the political power."
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"This creates a perplexing situation when the market calls for a supply of crops free of genetic engineering," said Christine Bushway, Executive Director and CEO of the Organic Trade Association in a press release. "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."
Widespread application of Roundup, Monsanto's trade name for the weed-killing chemical called glyphosate, has already led to the proliferation of "superweeds" that have mutated and can survive applications of the chemical. Currently, Australia ranks first in the world for weed resistance to herbicides. Speaking to a farmers' group in January, Stephen Powles, a renowned resistance expert at the University of Western Australia, warned that the United States might overtake his country if present trends continue.
The Obama administration's decision makes it all but certain that the dubious honor will soon be ours.