Food

What the Heck Happened? The Politics of GM Alfalfa Explained

How did the USDA's plan for peaceful coexistence among alfalfa growers end up with the agency approving GM alfalfa with no restrictions?

I’m still trying to understand how it happened that USDA’s plan for peaceful coexistence among growers of alfalfa—genetically modified (GM), industrial (but not GM), and organic (definitely not GM))—failed so miserably.  It was the first time that USDA seemed to be recognizing the legitimacy of complaints that GM crops are contaminating organic crops.  I thought this was a food step forward.

But the USDA ended up approving GM alfalfa with no restrictions—just promises to study the matter.

I’ve now seen some explanations that not only make sense, but also shed considerable light on how agricultural politics works in Washington these days.

Sam Fromartz, author of Organic, Inc, writes on his blog that after USDA’s decision:

The only appeasement the USDA offered were panels on studying ways to prevent contamination from occurring in the future. But this seems akin to studying ways to protect a forest after loggers have been allowed to cut down the trees.

The decision was a stunning reversal of a more measured approach that Vilsack appeared to be taking in December, when the USDA talked about considering the impact of the GM crop on other sectors of agriculture. But that was before he faced an uproar by the GM industry and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal for playing nice with organic farmers.

Gary Hirshberg, in response to heavy criticism that he sold out to Monsanto, writes on the Huffington Post:

Stonyfield is absolutely and utterly opposed to the deregulation of GE crops. We believe that these crops are resulting in significantly higher uses of toxic herbicides and water, creating a new generation of costly “super” weeds, pose severe and irreversible threats to biodiversity and seed stocks, do not live up to the superior yield claims of their patent holders and are unaffordable for small family farmers in the US and around the world.

We believe that organic farming methods are proving through objective, scientific validation to offer far better solutions. We also believe that unrestricted deregulation of GE crops unfairly limits farmer and consumer choice.

…From the outset of these stakeholder discussions, it was clear that GE alfalfa had overwhelming political, legal, financial and regulatory support, and thus the odds were severely stacked against any possibility of preventing some level of approval, just as has been the case with GE cotton, soy, canola and corn.

Keep in mind that, according to Food and Water Watch, biotech has spent more than half a billion dollars ($547 million) lobbying Congress since 1999. Their lobby expenditures more than doubled during that time. In 2009 alone they spent $71 million. Last year they had more than 100 lobbying firms working for them, as well as their own in-house lobbyists.

In an interview with Food Chemical News (Feb 3), Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety,  one of the groups leading the opposition to GM alfalfa:

describes USDA’s promises as a “stale gesture” toward organic and other industry groups that had worked with the department on its proposed option for partial deregulation of RR alfalfa. He speculates that USDA was prepared to go down the partial deregulation route but was “shot down at the White House level….

“It’s not about organic and GMOs,” Kimbrell continues. “The real losses are not with organic crops but with conventional crops,” such as rice commingled with Bayer’s authorized LibertyLink 601 variety and corn commingled with the StarLink variety. “The growers can’t sell their crops to Europe or Asia. The issue is how do we keep GMOs from contaminating conventional crops such as rice, corn and now alfalfa?”

Food and Water Watch, another leading group on this issue and the source of the lobbying data in Hirshberg’s comments,  points out that the USDA’s decision to allow unrestricted planting of GM alfalfa is not likely to be an isolated case.  The FDA is currently considering approval of GM salmon, and its decision is expected soon.

Both organizations are organizing protests on their websites, but this is how agricultural politics works these days.

Marion Nestle is the Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University and author of Food Politics; Safe Food; What to Eat; and Pet Food Politics. Her website is www.foodpolitics.com.
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