By Peter Beland
A national food safety group is gearing up to sue the federal government over the controversial practice of planting genetically modified alfalfa seeds.
The Center for Food Safety plans to sue the United States Department of Agriculture over a recent ruling to deregulate the planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa, a genetically engineered crop created by the global agribusiness Monsanto.
A legal battle between Monsanto and opponents of genetically modified alfalfa has been under way for six years. Monsanto promotes the herbicide-resistant alfalfa as a safe alternative that brings high yields. Opponents warn that the engineered crop could cross-contaminate organic and conventional plants and create herbicide-resistant weeds.
“We’re deeply disappointed by the decision [to deregulate],” says Organic Seed Alliance spokesperson Kristina Hubbard. “The agency missed an opportunity to establish a framework for overseeing GMOs.”
“I don’t believe that the USDA is concerned with people’s food choices as it is with keeping food cheap,” says Monmouth-area organic dairy farmer Jon Bansen.
It’s not only Oregon’s organic growers who are up in arms, but conventional alfalfa growers as well; both fear the risk of cross-contamination from the GE crop. “Pollen likes to travel far distances; in the case of alfalfa, bees are transporting it,” says Bansen. He worries that the engineered plants could hurt the export market of organic alfalfa to discerning East Asian markets.
A Monsanto spokesperson says such fears are irrelevant because decades of science has proven that multiple crop varieties can co-exist. “Farmers and seed companies have successfully managed coexistence in all crops since long before the introduction of biotech crops and continue to do so in alfalfa today,” says Mimi Rickets, spokesperson for the St Louis-based company. “Since the advent of biotech crops, both biotech and organic crop production have flourished.”
Even some opponents say that it is possible for the modified seeds to coexist with conventional ones. But they doubt that will happen without regulation. Currently, it is up the organic and conventional farmer to prevent cross-contamination. ”It wouldn’t be profitable if they had to do quality control,” says Bansen, wondering why Roundup Ready alfalfa growers are not required to control their crops more. The Monsanto alfalfa seeds cost more, but they require less work after planting.
According to the Center for Food Safety, of America’s 20 million acres of alfalfa, only 1.4 million are currently sprayed with herbicides. The ruling could mean that the remaining 18.6 million acres would be planted with Roundup Ready alfalfa and thus expose that area to herbicides that could cause harm to wildlife and the environment. “We think the ruling is unlawful and we will challenge,” says CFS senior attorney George Kimbrell.
Peter Beland is an associate writer for Oregon Business.