Background on the GE Alfalfa Issue
On December 16, 2010, the USDA released its Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) of Monsanto’s genetically engineered Roundup Ready Alfalfa. The EIS was conducted in response to a court decision demanding more thorough analysis of the potential environmental, economic and health impacts of GE alfalfa before approving deregulation. The EIS outlines three options for addressing GE alfalfa:
- Fully deregulate it (allow it to be planted anywhere)
- Fully regulate it (non-production; USDA has indicated this is not an option it would pursue)
- Conditionally deregulate it (allow GE alfalfa to be grown with certain rules and restrictions USDA would impose to minimize or limit contamination of non-GE crops)
Shortly after releasing the EIS, USDA indicated their preference for the third option and asked the biotech and organic communities to convene to try and find common ground for formulating rules and restrictions under conditional deregulation.
What this means for organic; not the preferred outcome
Undoubtedly, organic proponents including food co-ops would strongly prefer continued full regulation of GE alfalfa as this would offer the strongest protection for the organic industry and consumers of organic. But, the USDA has already said this is not an option it will pursue. Given this unfortunate reality, our next best opportunity and one that USDA has presented, is to try to ensure USDA enacts conditional deregulation and to get as many protections for organic agriculture as we can (keeping in mind that these rules will likely set the precedent for future GE product regulation). The organic community should be heard as loudly as those pushing for full deregulation.
What a GE alfalfa co-existence program must do
- Protect organic (prevent contamination)
Growing organic alfalfa and GE alfalfa on separate farms sounds easy enough to do. But it’s not so simple. When alfalfa blooms its pollen drifts and pollinates nearby plants, so it is essential that this program must specify scientifically substantiated separation distances. The fact that alfalfa is a perennial means that if it’s contaminated and hasn’t been cut down it will carry GE traits when it grows back. More stringent separation restrictions must be instituted to protect the integrity of organic. Programs to develop and support GE-free seeds must be in place.
- Put the responsibility for contamination on the GE patent holders
GE alfalfa biotech must put in place testing and prevention practices to monitor for contamination. The biotech companies and the GE alfalfa farmers should be required to carry contamination insurance. There must also be a system for compensating farmers due to inadvertent contamination (a contaminated field means more than one lost season for organic). The costs of remediating contamination should not fall on organic farmers or on the U.S. taxpayers, as has occurred in past GE contamination violations.
- Require mandatory labeling, so consumers can choose to eat or avoid genetically engineered food
Consumers deserve the right to choose non-GE food. Currently there is no labeling system that identifies GE food. The USDA Organic Seal currently precludes genetically engineered products, but this only addresses the organic sector. All food that has been genetically engineered or contains GE ingredients should be labeled.
- Be fully transparent
USDA must make public where all GE crops are grown, equitable to organic, to enable people with allergies to be aware that novel proteins in common foods may be in those areas. The USDA also needs to complete and make public ongoing, comprehensive environmental, public health and socio-economic assessments. (Incidentally, no long-term scientifically rigorous health studies on the impact of eating GE food have been conducted.)
Consumers care about the issue
When consumers were given the opportunity to voice their opinion on the issue in early 2010 (in response to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement [EIS] released by USDA which minimized the possibility and impact and of GE alfalfa contamination), 400,000 consumers commented, critiquing the substance and conclusions the EIS. The current process does not call for comments, and it has been rushed (discussions about deregulation options were announced on December 16, 2010) but consumers, nevertheless, have made an effort to have their voices heard.
Find additional information in the Stronger Together post, We Support an Organic Future.