Genetically Engineered Alfalfa Shouldn't Be Deregulated by USDA (Opinion)

Alfalfa fields in Idaho. Photo: Sam Beebe/Ecotrust via Flickr.
This opinion piece was contributed by Robynn Shrader, CEO of the National Cooperative Grocers Association.

Ten years ago in the United States, the word locavore didn't exist in our vocabulary. There were less than half the number of farmers markets that currently thrive throughout the country and sales of organic food were less than one fifth of what they are today. The rebirth of local, small-scale sustainable agriculture in America has clearly returned. Yet, this evident shift in food culture and consumer demand stands to be dramatically affected by a pending U.S. government decision to deregulate two varieties of Monsanto Company's genetically engineered alfalfa. For more than five years, Monsanto has been fighting to have their "Round-up Ready" alfalfa deregulated by APHIS (the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service)--the USDA office in charge of biotechnology--which would allow its unfettered planting and harvesting. Initially, the USDA agreed to deregulate the crop; yet a legal challenge forced the agency to retract its decision, because the USDA had not adequately considered the environmental and health effects of the crop. More than two years later, the USDA has released its Environmental Impact Statement about GE alfalfa, and despite increasing evidence suggesting a myriad of potential negative impacts, the USDA is poised to once again allow GE alfalfa throughout the United States.

Though alfalfa isn't a common pantry food, the deregulation of GE alfalfa will have widespread effects on consumers and farmers alike. Alfalfa is one of the main ingredients fed to dairy cows and beef cattle, and is often a popular food for honey bees. Consumers who seek organic versions of these products should be especially wary, since it is likely that GE alfalfa will contaminate the organic food supply.

The USDA asserts in their report that there is no evidence organic consumers care about GE contamination in their food. Yet such claims are contrary to the 270,000 comments the government received in past years against allowing GE in organic production, and polls have found more than 75 percent of organic consumers are against GE in organic foods. It is clear that organic consumers care about the integrity of organics and the possibility of GE contamination. Furthermore, this could lead to a detrimental economic impact on the $20 billion organic food industry.

Unfortunately, consumers are not alone--farmers stand to be affected by the deregulation of GE alfalfa. The USDA acknowledges that GE alfalfa has the capability to colonize and spread to areas not originally planted with GE alfalfa. In effect--GE alfalfa could spread to places it was not intended, such as certified organic farms. Contamination of non-GE plants with GE varieties could result in market rejection particularly in foreign markets where GE crops are not often accepted.

Even farmers choosing to grow GE alfalfa should be concerned. GE alfalfa will likely increase the amount of glyphosate (the chemical herbicide used in "Round-Up Ready" GE crops) necessary to grow the crop. Increased glyphosate elevates farmer costs, and has resulted in a rash of "super weeds" throughout the U.S. that have become resistant to this popular herbicide. In some cases farmers have turned back to more harmful and dangerous herbicides to combat these weeds, including suspected human carcinogens.

For the American public, deregulating GE alfalfa represents new threats of contamination, and a demonstration that the USDA continues to allow GE crops despite inadequate scientific testing to assess its impact on human and environmental health. Emerging research continues to demonstrate situations where GE crops can affect embryo development and human health as well as the environment, and other countries are taking notice. Germany and France have taken recent measures to restrict GE crop approvals, and South Africa is implementing mandatory labeling requirements for GE foods, enabling consumers the right to choose - a luxury U.S. citizens have never been able to enjoy.

The USDA APHIS office describes its mission as to "provide leadership in ensuring the health and care of plants and animals," though their GE alfalfa Environmental Impact Statement falls terribly short of living up to this mission. American farmers should not have to fear losing their livelihoods because of contamination, and all Americans deserve a chance to make informed decisions about what foods they purchase for their families. The USDA should reconnect to its mission, and think seriously about the real implications of deregulating GE alfalfa for American consumers and farmers.

About National Cooperative Grocers Association
National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA), founded in 1999, is a business services cooperative for consumer-owned food co-ops located throughout the United States. NCGA is owned by 112 food co-ops operating more than 140 stores in 32 states with combined annual sales of over $1 billion. NCGA helps unify natural food co-ops in order to optimize operational and marketing resources, strengthen purchasing power, and ultimately offer more value to natural food co-op shoppers everywhere. Additionally, NCGA is a winner of the dotCoop Global Awards for Cooperative Excellence in recognition of the application of cooperative values and principles to drive cooperative and business success. For a map of co‑op member locations, visit the NCGA website. To learn more about co-ops, visit Go Co-Op.


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Tags: Farming | Genetic Engineering | GMO | Organic Agriculture

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