(Beyond Pesticides, December 17, 2010) Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack disappointed organic farmers and consumers, as well as environmentalists when he announced December 16, 2010 that the U.S. Department of Agriculture was considering “deregulating” a genetically engineered crop that is tied to genetic drift, superweeds, and the use of a hazardous pesticide -Monsanto’s genetically-engineered (GE) Roundup (glyphosate) Ready (RR) alfalfa. The Department released a 2,400 page Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) as required by a 2007 Federal District Court decision and upheld by both 2009 Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and June 2010 U.S. Supreme Court rulings. The litigation was led by the Center for Food Safety, and joined by Beyond Pesticides, and other groups, including organic seed companies and producers. A broad coalition of groups has previously called for USDA to deny approval of Monsanto’s genetically engineered, Roundup Ready alfalfa (GE alfalfa).
In March, more than 200,000 people submitted comments to USDA critiquing the substance and conclusions of its Draft EIS on GE Alfalfa. In addition, more than 300 public interest organizations, farmers, dairies, retailers and organic food producers from the U.S. and Canada delivered a critical letter to USDA. U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), joined by 49 other representatives and five other senators, sent a letter to Secretary Vilsack asking USDA to retain the regulated status of genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa. In their letter, endorsed by over 50 businesses and organizations, the lawmakers assert that the draft USDA findings about genetically engineered alfalfa cannot be justified.
In the latest EIS, USDA considered three alternatives during the preparation of the final EIS: 1) to maintain the RR alfalfa’s status as a regulated article; 2) to deregulate RR alfalfa; or 3) to deregulate RR alfalfa with geographic restrictions and isolation distances for the production of RR alfalfa. USDA has analyzed the potential environmental impacts of the proposed alternatives and has listed two preferred options: deregulation as one option and the other deregulation accompanied by a combination of isolation distances and geographic restrictions on the production of GE alfalfa seed and, in some locations, hay. According to USDA, “By listing both options as preferred, USDA has considered plant pest issues as well as broader environmental and economic issues related to the coexistence between genetically engineered, non-genetically engineered, and organic alfalfa production.”
Quoting from its press release, “USDA maintains that biotechnology holds great promise for agriculture here in the United States, and around the world. There’s absolutely no doubt of the safety of the many products USDA’s regulatory system has approved. The examination of these issues through the EIS process, however, highlighted some of the challenges USDA faces in the area of biotechnology regulation as it aims to meet the expectations of its diverse stakeholders.” The safety of genetically engineered crops and the pesticides used in conjunction with them are in dispute and raise issues central to the protection of public health and the environment.
“We have seen rapid adoption of biotechnology in agriculture, along with the rise of organic and non-genetically engineered sectors over the last several decades,” Secretary Vilsack said. He continued, “While the growth in all these areas is great for agriculture, it has also led, at times, to conflict or, at best, an uneasy coexistence between the different ways of growing crops. We need to address these challenges and develop a sensible path forward for strengthening coexistence of all segments of agriculture in our country. All are vital and a part of rural America’s success. All should be able to thrive together.”
Organic organizations have questioned whether USDA’s allowance of genetically-engineered crops, given the accepted understanding of genetically modifed organisms (GMO) contamination related to its drifting, condemns the organic industry to limited growth and economic harm. Genetically modified organisms are prohibited in organic production and processing.
Secretary Vilsack said that USDA will use this opportunity to begin a conversation on how to move forward and find strategies for strengthening coexistence. “We will partner with all those who want to roll up their sleeves and work with us and each other to find common sense solutions to today’s challenges. And we will do so openly and transparently.” USDA said yesterday that it is important to note that the EIS USDA is releasing is not a decision document. It is an analysis of the impacts of the various alternatives with regard to their potential environmental and related economic impacts. The final EIS will be available for public review for at least 30 days before USDA will publish a record of decision on how it will proceed.
USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) will be submitting the EIS to the Environmental Protection Agency for publication in the Federal Register, and USDA anticipates that EPA will publish a notice that the final EIS on RR alfalfa is available for public review in the Federal Register on December 23, 2010.
Beyond Pesticides, in collaboration with the National Organic Coalition, will be attending a meeting with Secretary Vilsack and others on Monday, December 20, 2010 to discuss the EIS and related issues. For more information, see National Organic Coalition’s principles for the restriction of genetically modified organisms.
Take Action: Call USDA: Tell Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack that the best option is to ban genetically engineered alfalfa; Call 202-720-3631; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.