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GE alfalfa: The genie is out of the bottle  

Jan. 30, 2011

The unrestricted planting of genetically engineered alfalfa was approved last week by the United States Department of Agriculture, news that was swiftly condemned by advocates of the organic farming movement. 


Alfalfa is the main food crop used to produce hay for dairy farming. It is the fourth largest crop grown on US farm fields, with about 23 million acres planted. Of that, one percent is grown organically.


The GE alfalfa, called Roundup Ready, was engineered by Monsanto and contains a gene making the plants more resistant to Roundup, a herbicide produced by Monsanto. The USDA had first approved the planting of GE alfalfa in 2005, but opponents quickly filed a lawsuit blocking the planting. Courts decreed that the USDA would have to perform a full environmental impact study before deciding whether to approve the crop or not. That study, which runs 2,300 pages long, concluded that the GE alfalfa was safe to plant.


In December, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had appeared to be leaning towards a plan that would have strictly controlled restricted plantings of the GE crop. That approach was aimed at safeguarding organic plantings of alfalfa. Organic growers were concerned that their fields could be cross-pollinated by the GE seed, contaminating their cops. In addition, producers of conventional, non-GE alfalfa crops were also concerned that cross-contamination could jeopardize crops intended for export. Several counties have outright bans on GE crops. 


While opponents of unregulated GE foods are expressing great disappointment in this decision, some are encouraged that the USDA has through this process committed to studying how to prevent cross-pollination and to securing and preserving non-GE alfalfa seeds. Indeed, the fight over GE alfalfa has brought the twin issues of cross-pollination and seed diversity and preservation to the public eye.


The National Cooperative Grocers Association, to which Outpost belongs, was among the groups expressing displeasure with the decision.


“We appreciate that the USDA considered various options for the future of GE alfalfa, and had hoped that the voices of the hundreds of thousands of consumers who commented on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement [EIS] would result in a different outcome,” said Robynn Shrader, chief executive officer for NCGA. “Like many, we are extremely disappointed with yesterday's announcement and will continue to champion for better protections for organic farmers and consumers, by all means afforded to us.


"Many organizations are encouraging consumers to contact the White House and their state's legislators with their feedback on USDA's decision and we encourage all consumers to continue to make their voices heard. However, we have also heard some calls for boycotting of organics in protest to USDA's decision and we'd like to express our passionate objection to this idea.


"The message we would like to send to organic consumers today is that it is more important than ever to support the farmers and processors who bring us organics," said Shrader. "It is only through continued growth and increased market power that we can have a greater impact in Washington. Yesterday's decision means that the work of organic farmers and others in the industry will be more challenging than ever. We want them to know that NCGA will continue to work on their behalf and we call on consumers to join us in showing support. Now is the time for us to demonstrate our shared commitment to organic. Now is the time to support organic farmers."


For more information:

The USDA announcement

The NCGA response

Organic Trade Association

Organic Valley's statement

New York Times article on the USDA decision

An Organic Valley farmer talks about GE alfalfa

Center for Food Safety

National Organic Coalition

Take Action:

Petition to demand President Obama to stop Monsanto's GE alfalfa here

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