(Beyond Pesticides, June 24, 2011) Attorneys for farmer and environmental organizations filed a motion in court on Monday to seek partial judgment in their case against Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack regarding his department’s recent deregulation of genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa. The plaintiffs, including the Center for Food Safety, Beyond Pesticides, and several seed and farming organizations, filed a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on the claim in the lawsuit regarding the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The suit claims that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is required by the ESA to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in decisions regarding regulation of GE products in order to determine any potential impact on endangered species or their habitats. Since APHIS did not consult with FWS prior to its decision to deregulate GE alfalfa, the plaintiffs hold that the decision is invalid until an evaluation is conducted by FWS.
Since the alfalfa is engineered by the agribusiness corporation Monsanto to be resistant to the company’s Roundup herbicide products, active ingredient glyphosate, the plaintiffs argue that planting of the so-called Roundup Ready alfalfa will result in significantly increased rates of herbicide application, potentially resulting in drastic impacts on wildlife, including endangered species.
The ESA claim is part of a larger suit filed earlier this year against USDA, challenging its deregulation of the GE alfalfa. The suit, Center for Food Safety, et al., v. Vilsack, et al., argues that the agency’s deregulation of the Roundup Ready alfalfa is unlawful and seeks to prevent any future planting of the engineered crop. The plaintiffs in the suit include a diverse coalition of conventional and organic farmers, dairies and agricultural associations, and environmental and consumer groups: Center for Food Safety, Beyond Pesticides, Cornucopia Institute, California Farmers Union, Dakota Resources Council, Geertson Seed Farms, National Family Farm Coalition, Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, Sierra Club, Trask Family Seeds and Western Organization of Resource Councils.
The suit was filed following USDA’s announcement in January of this year that it plans to fully deregulate GE alfalfa. With full deregulation of underway, USDA estimates that up to 23 million more pounds of toxic herbicides will be released into the environment each year. The announcement came after signs from Secretary Vilsack that he wished to seek a middle ground regarding the crop, so that organic, conventional, and GE farmers could coexist. After a series of meetings and discussions among stakeholders, the agency’s final decision infuriated organic farmers and environmentalists, who felt the agency ignored their concerns.
This is the second case challenging the legality of USDA’s handling of GE alfalfa. In 2007, in another case brought by the Center for Food Safety, a federal court ruled that the USDA’s approval of the engineered crop violated environmental laws by failing to analyze risks such as the contamination of conventional and organic alfalfa, the evolution of glyphosate-resistant weeds, and increased use of Roundup. The case resulted in USDA undertaking a court-ordered four-year study of GE alfalfa’s impacts under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Remarkably, it marked the first time USDA had ever undertaken such a study, known as an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), in over 15 years of approving GE crops for commercial production. While USDA worked on the EIS, GE alfalfa remained unlawful to plant or sell, a ban that remained in place despite Monsanto appealing the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The decision to fully deregulate GE alfalfa fails to take several scientifically-validated environmental concerns, such as the indiscriminate nature of GE gene flow in crops, a heavy reliance on faulty data, and a high degree of uncertainties in making safety determinations. It also overlooks the problem of herbicide resistant weeds as well as the widespread corruption of conventional seed varieties by GE strains, along with documented severe economic injury to farmers and markets. And, there is no mention at all of possible health consequences from eating GE crops, despite the fact that long-term health effects of consuming GE food are still largely unstudied and unknown. A coalition of environmental and farm groups, as well as the National Organic Coalition, opposed the decision and wrote to USDA decrying the decision.
Known as the “queen of forages,” alfalfa is the key feedstock for the dairy industry. Organic dairies stand to lose their source of organic feed, a requirement for organic dairy, including milk and yogurt products. The organic sector is the most vibrant part of U.S. agriculture, now a 26 billion dollar a year industry and growing 20% annually. The latest USDA data show that less than 10 percent of alfalfa acres are sprayed with any herbicide, and consequently, GE alfalfa will dramatically increase the use of such chemicals across the country, with all of their attendant hazards to wildlife, plants, groundwater, and people.
For more information on GE crops please see Beyond Pesticides’ page on Genetic Engineering.