Genetically modified alfalfa and the future of organic foods
Organic farmers and food advocates think new rules around genetically modified, so called Roundup Ready alfalfa could kill the organic dairy industry. So they're suing.
This story was originally covered by PRI's Living on Earth. For more, listen to the audio above.
Reported by Jessica Ilyse Smith
Last year the Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. Department of Agriculture should decide the fate of genetically engineered alfalfa. The product in question is called Roundup Ready alfalfa and its maker, Monsanto, says it's just like any other hay seed except that it's resistant to their herbicide, Roundup, which kills weeds in alfalfa fields. This January, the USDA made the unexpected decision to give the go-ahead to Monsanto to sell its seeds, and for farmers to plant them without restrictions.
This blindsided many organic farmers and consumer advocates, some of who fear the new seed could kill the organic dairy industry. Alfalfa is used to make hay, and organic farmers believe that an influx of GM alfalfa could contaminate their crops. Just a month earlier, the USDA brought together organic farmers and food distributors, biotech corporations and crop exporters to talk about a coexistence plan -- a plan of how Roundup Ready Alfalfa could be grown with everyone's interests in mind.
Biotech advocates believe that industry can self-regulate on issues like buffer distances to protect organic crops from contamination. They say farmers can manage themselves without government rules, making a government-mandated coexistence plan redundant.
"I think that's hooey," says George Kimbrell, an attorney with the Center for Food Safety, who brought the suit against the USDA. Without government oversight, Kimbrell believes protections for non-GE farmers will fall through the cracks. "We have a number of cautionary tales from other parts of our economy in which industry has claimed that self-regulation is sufficient," he says. "You need look no further than Wall Street, or the Gulf Oil Spill, or the housing market collapse to realize that we need federal oversight - particularly when you have industry lobbying."
"USDA's own analysis shows that contamination will happen," Kimbrell stresses. "They just wash their hands of it and put that entire burden on the organic or the non-GE farmer. And we think that decision was unlawful."
Government officials aren't as worried. "There have been some deregulated GE crops in production for a number of years, primarily corn and soybeans. And the organic producers have managed to live with the present," Miles McEvoy, head of the USDA's National Organic Program, told Living on Earth. "And so I would imagine that that's going to be the same outcome for the deregulation of GE alfalfa - is, growers will have to take measures to avoid contamination and that will, for the most part, protect organic growers and consumers from the presence of GE crops."
Many of the decisions about how the government moves forward will rest on Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. McEvoy says: "He recognizes the economic possibilities of the organic market and wants to support the continued growth of that, as well as the growth of biotechnology, because he sees that as a very thriving part of American agriculture."
That tension could have large effects on the future of food and farmers in the United States.
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