Fighting Back Against GE Crops

Farmers and environmentalists are suing federal agencies for allowing a bio-technology giant to market genetically modified alfalfa, allegedly without fully considering potential harm to the American food supply and environment.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. district court against the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency, argues that federal regulators illegally approved Monsanto's application for commercial sale of genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa.

"Our belief is that there seems to be an increasingly frequent systemic lack of objectivity in a lot of the regulatory decisions that are flowing from USDA," said co-plaintiff Pat Trask, whose family has run an alfalfa-seed business in South Dakota for nearly a century.

Plaintiffs say approval by the USDA of Monsanto's request to market genetically modified alfalfa without regulation will eventually destroy farmers' ability to grow alfalfa free of engineered genes and will lead to increased use of harmful herbicides. Filed in the Northern District of California federal court, the lawsuit charges that regulators violated the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Plant Protection Act.

Experiments with nature

One of the most widely grown crops in the U.S., alfalfa generates an estimated $11.7 billion dollars yearly, according to the USDA. Though mostly grown for animal feed, the protein- and vitamin-rich purple-flowered legume is also sold for direct human consumption.

In 1998, Monsanto began developing a genetically modified strain called Roundup Ready Alfalfa. Like Monsanto's Roundup Ready Corn and Roundup Ready Soy, the GE alfalfa is designed to resist to the company's flagship herbicide product Roundup -- one of the most widely used industrial weed-killers in the world.

The USDA approved Roundup Ready Alfalfa for commercial sale last fall, making it the first large-scale perennial food crop approved and deregulated by the U.S. government. To date, GE alfalfa is grown on 50,000 acres across the country.

Some question the need to create an herbicide-resistant strain in the first place. According to the Center for Food Safety, a public interest and environmental advocacy organization, more than 80 percent of alfalfa grown in the United States is raised without any herbicides.

"Alfalfa is not something that has a big need of weed control," said Trusk, whose family has been growing traditional strains of alfalfa on the edge of the Black Hills for four generations. The crop's natural growth pattern shades the ground, discouraging most weeds, Trusk noted.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are concerned that the increased planting of Roundup Ready Alfalfa will similarly expand the use of toxic chemicals on farms. Scientific studies conducted by the British government and by academic researchers at Ohio State University have documented the evolution of "superweeds" -- nuisance plants ironically resistant to Roundup itself. Conservationists and public health advocates fear that farmers would then turn to even more toxic chemicals to kill the emboldened intruders.

"That creates a cycle of poisoning and dependency in agriculture which escalates over time, often referred to as a pesticide treadmill," said Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides, a D.C.-based environmental group and co-plaintiff in the suit. "[This cycle] belies the stated intent of those promoting the technology as one that would reduce pesticide dependence."

The groups are also concerned that bees, which help pollinate alfalfa, will carry pollen from genetically altered Monsanto crops to their conventional cousin, contaminating heirloom crops and destroying farmers' ability to grow plants free from bioengineering. They argue that the USDA should devise regulations to force GE alfalfa farmers to create "buffer zones" between themselves and traditional growers to help prevent irreparable harm to the traditional alfalfa gene pool.

Documentation of this cross pollination has uncovered instances in which farmers were growing food containing Monsanto-patented genes without even knowing it because of contamination from nearby farms. One such case was Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser, who spent six years and $400,000 fighting Monsanto's claims of patent infringement after Roundup Ready canola was found in his fields.

Schmeiser, who had planted natural breeds of canola for 50 years, argued that his farm was contaminated with Monsanto's plants by wind, passing trucks, water runoff or insect pollination. Ultimately a Canadian Supreme Court judge ruled that regardless of how Monsanto's seeds reached Schmeiser's farm, Schmeiser had infringed on Monsanto's patent. In that case, the judge spared Schmeiser from paying any damages.

A lack of oversight

The 37-year old National Environmental Policy Act requires federal agencies prepare detailed analyses of any federal actions that could significantly affect the environment. But Will Rostov, senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety, says the USDA did not perform an environmental impact statement for GE alfalfa. In fact, he told TNS, the agency has not conducted one for any GE crops before giving them the green light.

In the case of GE alfalfa, the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) - established in 1987 to oversee the safety of biotech products - conducted a preliminary environmental assessment and found "no significant impact on the environment" from Roundup Ready Alfalfa. The agency then decided no further analysis was needed.

However, the 42-page report acknowledges public concerns about the crop's potential impact, including increased use of herbicides, cross-contamination, harm to other organisms, and adverse affects on human health. The report also noted concerns that the crop could benefit large agribusinesses at the expense of family farms, and lead to loss of exports to countries that have expressed concerns about GE foods, such as Japan and South Korea, the two biggest customers for U.S. alfalfa exports.

APHIS dismissed all concerns but one: the potential growth of herbicide-resistant weeds as a result of releasing Roundup Ready Alfalfa to the industry. But the agency concluded that the problem could best be remedied if growers are careful to prevent their crops from maturing enough to reproduce.

Although the government's assessment also states that the majority of alfalfa growers and others tied to the alfalfa industry support the commercialization of Roundup Ready Alfalfa, the report also shows that out of 663 public comments submitted to APHIS, nearly 80 percent were opposed to the deregulation of Monsanto's GE alfalfa.

Many of those comments came from organic farmers who are concerned that GE alfalfa will compromise the integrity of their crops, leading to economic loss and liability issues. Wisconsin organic beef farmer Jim Munsch, who stays clear of consuming GE corn and soy products himself, said his customers come to him because they trust the purity of the food.

"You have to understand that the philosophy of an organic farmer starts out with a premise that we don't understand nature, that there are biological processes going on that people do not understand," Munsch told TNS. "When you start tinkering when any little piece of [nature], you have a tremendous risk of upsetting the whole process."

Additionally, doubts have emerged within the USDA itself about the agency's ability to monitor the safety of GE crops. In a report issued last December, the agency's inspector general wrote, "As the number of approved applications to field test new GE plants continues to rise, we are concerned that the Department's efforts to regulate those crops have not kept pace."

The USDA did not respond to repeated interview requests from TNS. The lawsuit also charges the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with failing to assess the impact of increased Roundup use on endangered and threatened species. The EPA deferred all comment to the USDA.

Monsanto spokesperson Mica DeLong defended the company's testing of Roundup Ready Alfalfa, telling TNS that the company fulfilled all of the USDA requirements to bring the product to market.

DeLong added that farmers' concerns about cross-contamination are unfounded because the only way alfalfa can go to seed is if farmers let it, and farmers using Monsanto's Roundup Ready products sign a licensing agreement precluding them from saving and replanting the seeds.

Delong said that since the majority of growers produce Roundup Ready Alfalfa only for hay, animal feed or exports, growers would not allow their crops to go to seed because that would reduce the quality of the forage.

But the plaintiffs' concerns center on contamination from pollen, not seeds. And according to the Madison, Wisconsin-based group Family Farm Defenders, most alfalfa is cut after some of blossoms have already produced pollen.

Rostov of the Center for Food Safety said he hopes the lawsuit against the USDA will return some control to the public by encouraging better federal oversight of genetically modified crops. The suit asks the court to force the re-regulation of Roundup Ready Alfalfa and requests a full environmental impact statement for GE alfalfa from the USDA.

The agencies have until mid-April to respond to the lawsuit.

"There's a pattern that is noxious and toxic to the traditional American way of life," said Trask, the alfalfa-seed farmer. "This is not good for American people. You're losing food safety and property rights simultaneously. And the beneficiaries of this are not human beings with a conscious. They're corporate boardroom financial reports."

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