Modified Alfalfa Wars: A Response to James McWilliams



Years ago, I had a history professor at Reed College who thought it was fruitless to understand the historical impact of contemporary events. He argued that a historian needed at least two decades remove from any event to come to any worthwhile conclusion because only then could it be understood within its wider political and economic context. Perhaps that's why I find it curious that a historian like James McWilliams so confidently offers conclusions about the contemporary food system and does so often by looking at complex issues through such a narrow lens.

Take his most recent piece on genetically modified (GM) alfalfa, where he took me to task about the risk of potential contamination of non-GM alfalfa. Since organic alfalfa is grown on such a small percentage of land, he argued, the risk and impact of contamination from the genetically engineered crop was slight. He supported the argument by brandishing "the data"--a study by a researcher which showed a small risk of cross-pollination. If the ignorant public only looked at the science, he argues, there wouldn't be such a fuss.

Then there's the organic sector, where buyers are already refusing crop shipments due to GM contamination, certifiers have told me. McWilliams stated this shouldn't be a problem.

But how would a historian approach this question? From a future vantage point, they would probably look at this study with interest, but then also examine the actual record of cross-contamination in the real word. Given what's happened in the recent past, I wouldn't be as sanguine as McWilliams. 

They might find that in 2006, GM rice spread to conventional rice farms in Louisiana and Texas. It wasn't from fully deregulated plantings like GM alfalfa, but from closely controlled GM test plots. It led losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Taco shells were pulled from shelves in 2000, because they contained unapproved genetically engineered corn meant for animal feed not humans. Genetically modified pharmaceutical corn crossed to non-pharma corn and also contaminated soybeans in 2002 and the crops were destroyed.

In Canada, the market for organic canola collapsed because GM canola crossed into organic fields (PDF). The market for Canadian honey exports suffered, because a GM trait found in pollen collected by honey bees was not approved for human consumption in Europe. In Texas, last year, Monsanto sold mislabeled bags of GM cotton seed and it was planted in areas where it was prohibited. EPA fined the company $2.5 million. Also last year, researchers found that GM canola had crossed into wild plants, spread in part by trucks. "We found the highest densities of plants near agricultural fields and along major freeways," Professor Cindy Sagers told the BBC. "But we were also finding plants in the middle of nowhere--and there's a lot of nowhere in North Dakota."

Although a study might suggest little chance of such transgressions with alfalfa, in the real world, glyphosate-tolerant alfalfa (genetically engineered to resist the herbicide glyphosate) has already spread to non-GM fields. The USDA had to address this issue in its own court-ordered environmental impact statement (PDF, see Appendix V). In one section, the report states:

Following 2005-2007, the alfalfa seed production firms of Dairyland and Cal/West seeds reported a number of instances where GT (glyphosate-tolerant) transgene presence was detected in non-GT alfalfa seed production fields in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and California. In 2006, Dairyland farmers reported 11 of 16 fields contained detectable levels of GT transgene; 9 fields in Montana and single fields in each Wyoming and Idaho.

The USDA said the transgenic levels ranged from 0.2 percent to 0.9 percent, which it did not find problematic, although it would be an issue for GM-sensitive markets. Last year, Cal/West found the GM crop in 12 percent of 200 fields where it planted non-GM alfalfa seed. 

The historian would likely consider the decision to deregulate GM alfalfa in a political context; looking at how a massive lobbying machine was able to push through the deregulation of the seed in concert with the new emphasis in the Obama administration to be more business-friendly. This decision, though, proved friendly to just one business interest. (Recall that USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack had floated a measured approach of "coexistance" precisely because of concerns about the impact on non-GMO farmers.)

Then there's the organic sector, where buyers are already refusing crop shipments due to GM contamination, certifiers have told me. McWilliams stated this shouldn't be a problem. "The organic industry already allows less than 5 percent of its crops to be contaminated with synthetic pesticide drift," he wrote. This is just flat out wrong.

According to the USDA organic regulations, a product can't be labeled organic if it is found to have a prohibited substance (such as synthetic pesticides) at greater than 5 percent of its EPA tolerance level. What does that mean? Say the EPA allows a pesticide residue at up to 100 parts per million (ppm). If testing detects more than 5 ppm of that pesticide on an organic crop, it can't be sold as organic. That does not mean 5 percent of your organic crop can be contaminated with synthetic pesticides. And if synthetic pesticides are found, even from drift, the farmer has to find ways to mitigate the problem or risk losing certification.

In any case, that point is irrelevant, because genetic engineering is not a "prohibited substance" under organic regulations, where such thresholds apply. It's a "prohibited method." There is no stated threshold for its presence, so it's really not up to the organic farmer to just accept it. If organic seeds test positive for genetic modification, they can't be planted by organic farmers to feed their organic cows. That's just the law.

But look at the issue another way. Alfalfa is the third largest commodity crop in the country, a minority of which is now grown with herbicides. The other top crops--corn, soybeans, and cotton--have all been engineered to resist glyphosate. The result has been a rise in glyphosate use and glyphosate-resistant "superweeds." Alfalfa was a useful rotation in keeping that evolutionary mutation at bay. No longer. Glyphosate use will grow and superweeds will continue to evolve to resist it, until the next more powerful weed killer is rolled out. McWilliams knows this, that's why he's careful to state glyphosate-resistance "presents no pest problems."  He ignores the weeds that farmers are now chopping down by hand or killing with more toxic herbicides.

Of course, I don't pretend to know how all these issues will play out, but I am fairly confident that full deregulation will mean greater risks of transgenic contamination for those who don't want it. That is patently unfair. It would be like forcing a vegetarian to eat meat because, sorry, that's all we're serving these days. Or worse, not identifying the hidden meat in the dish (because GM crops aren't labeled). But by McWilliams logic, that would be "perfectly reasonable" to accept. And he's a vegetarian.