Yesterday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack officially approved the unregulated planting of Monsanto's genetically engineered alfalfa. In a move that will undoubtedly set a precedent for what comes next (namely, the question of whether or not to deregulate GE sugarbeets) Vilsack did nothing more, and nothing less than obliterate our choice as organic consumers to be assured that we are avoiding genetically modified organisms in our food.
The Problem with GE Alfalfa
GE (genetically engineered) alfalfa has been modified to resist the effects of the weed killer glyphosate, also known as Roundup. Alfalfa is a perennial crop that is most commonly grown as animal feed for dairy cows and most other livestock. In addition to being sown by farmers, alfalfa also grows wild along roadsides throughout the country.
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The issues with GE alfalfa are numerous:
1. Safe for Human Consumption?
First is the question of safety. Genetically engineered crops have not been tested for long-range health effects on humans and wildlife.
2. Contamination of Non-GE Crops
Alfalfa plants are pollinated by bees, most of which can travel and pollinate plants as far as five miles away. So a farmer who has been making a concerted effort to steer clear of GMOs in his fields can very easily be contaminated. There are no protections in place, and no insurance policy against damages these farmers suffer as a result of GE alfalfa contamination. According to the Center for Food Safety, a study of the past 200 GE contamination cases has found that farmers have suffered hundreds of millions of dollars in lost sales. We also know what Monsanto does to farmers who are unwittingly contaminated by their GE crops: They sue them.
3. Looming Threat to Organic Meat and Dairy
Certified organic products cannot, by law, contain any GMOs. So those farmers who grow alfalfa to feed their dairy cows, who in turn are there to produce organic milk? They're screwed if their alfalfa has been contaminated. It's no longer "organic" under the law. And you and I, organic consumers that we are -- we're equally screwed because our choices for organic, non-GMO dairy and meat products is severely diminished.
4. Increased (Not Decreased) Use of Chemical Weedkillers
The USDA's own data shows that the adoption of Roundup Ready (GE) alfalfa would trigger a huge increase in the use of pesticides, up to 23 million pounds of poisons per year. This is due to the fact that while farmers douse their Roundup Ready crops with glyphosate, weeds are continually adapting defenses to survive nonetheless. These "superweeds" will require the use of stronger, more toxic pesticides being used on our farmland, and seeping into the groundwater. This, in turn, puts farm workers in danger -- a Swedish study recently concluded that the application of Roundup doubles farm workers' and and rural residents' risks of getting cancer.
What Can We Do?
GE alfalfa will be sown in fields across the country this spring. There are a few steps we can take to avoid it. Getting dairy and meat from small family farms is a good start, but remember that no matter how careful they are, these farmers' crops can be contaminated at any time. There are several organizations, including the Center for Food Safety, that are gearing up to contest this decision in court.
At this point, President Obama is the last line of defense. He's the only one who can immediately prevent GE alfalfa from being planted this year. Food & Water Watch is running a campaign urging people to send letters to the President asking him to step in. However, based on what Food Safety News recently reported, the White House encouraged Vilsack to go with complete deregulation of GE alfalfa so the administration would appear "friendly to big business."
There is sure to be more news on the horizon about not only GE alfalfa, but other GMO foods as well. Stay tuned.