This article first appeared in the March-April, 2011 issue of the Organic Broadcaster newspaper, published by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, MOSES, www.mosesorganic.org.

The USDA deregulation of genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa in January will now allow unrestricted planting of this crop across the United States. Leading up to the decision, over 200,000 comments were made by organic producers, exporters of conventional alfalfa, beekeepers, consumers, and others, expressing grave concern about GE alfalfa’s negative effect on our environment and on their specific areas of interest. The unsuccessful fight against the crop was lead in the courts by the Center for Food Safety and Geertson Farms. The decision should be seen as a rally call to sustainable farmers and consumers everywhere to become even more angry and vigilant in their resistance against the agricultural menace of GMOs.

The release of this new GE seed does not meet a need in agriculture, since weed control has not been a huge issue in alfalfa. In fact, cows need to eat long stemmed grasses! The Roundup Ready alfalfa is not approved for human consumption, but since there are not any anti-contamination safeguards, GMO alfalfa sprouts will soon be coming to a salad bar near you. The USDA plans to study how to protect the purity of alfalfa seed stocks from GMO contamination, after the widespread planting of GE alfalfa. These “studies” will only tell us how much cross pollination we have already had between GE and non-GE alfalfa, not control it.

The USDA did complete a quite comprehensive 2,400-page Environmental Impact Statement which clearly stated there would be negative impacts, through contamination of the seed stock, to organic and non-GMO farmers from GE alfalfa. In response, USDA Secretary Vilsack put forward an option where there would be geographic distances between GE and non-GE alfalfa seed production, and management requirements to cut GE forages at 10% bloom or less. While it was gratifying to see the USDA consider the impact on those who do not want their crops genetically contaminated, the proposal put forward was a bone with no meat upon it. Who would be the bloom police? How could this actually be enforced? Farming is not done in a controlled environment and challenges such as rain, equipment failures, or even a child’s softball tournament might keep a farmer from harvesting their GMO alfalfa field at the mandated 10% bloom.

In the decision, Secretary Vilsack asked for a “coexistence” plan between non-GE or organic alfalfa production and GE alfalfa. We give him credit for recognizing that pollen from genetically engineered crops can cross pollinate with non-GE crops, causing damage and hardship to those who do not want to have these genetics on their farm. However, the USDA did not stand up to the biotech industry, and instead allowed uncontrolled planting of GE alfalfa, except for a few isolated areas to protect specific non-GE alfalfa seed stocks.

The biotech industry cannot be allowed any longer to pressure our government to approve these dangerous crops and life forms without doing long-term studies on the environmental, social, economic, and human health impacts. Numerous studies have proven that these crops are not necessary and only serve to line the pockets of the already rich and powerful, at the expense of the collective future of our planet.

While challenges such as these can lead us to feel unempowered and depressed, we need to remember that nature has a supreme capacity for healing. As organic farmers, we know how to promote that healing. We know how we can bring life back to a dead soil and improve our environment to enhance wildlife while at the same time producing nutritionally dense and abundant crops. We can change the direction of agriculture, and we must.

A Plan for Action
The organic community, lead by the National Organic Coalition, has put forth to the USDA the following seven point plan to address GMO contamination prevention and promote farmer and consumer fairness in choice of what crops and foods they wish to plant and eat.

  1. Establishment of a fully distinct and separate USDA public cultivar and breeds institute to ensure that farmers have elite public cultivar and breeding choices that are not genetically modified and that germplasm collections are free of GMO contamination.
  2. Creation of a Contamination Compensation Fund in FSA or RMA funded by GMO patent holders and based upon their strict liability. This would provide immediate assistance to all farmers and other supply chain participants contaminated by GMOs, pending further necessary remedies of law and equity. Such a Fund would establish costs associated with the prevention of GMO commingling and contamination from seed to table and would include both perpetual type costs as well as identity preserved price differential costs for organic and other non-GMO.
  3. Ongoing GM crop regulation, including the complete elimination of deregulated GM crop status; including prior deregulations and on-going oversight and public evaluations of compliance and enforcement.
  4. Comprehensive, independent, longitudinal studies on the health impacts of eating GMOs and on the environmental and socio-economic impacts of release prior to GM crop approvals.
  5. Prohibition on the growing of GM crops that are deemed too promiscuous to prevent GMO Contamination.
  6. Mitigation of food security risks associated with the concentration of any sector of our food system in the hands of a few companies or with the use of one food production technology or patented seeds or genotypes to the near exclusion of all others.
  7. Institution of an immediate labeling protocol for all GM crops, products, and ingredients in close collaboration with other agencies as required.

Harriet Behar is the MOSES organic specialist. She lives with her husband on an organic farm near Gays Mills, WI.