USDA Deregulates Genetically Engineered Alfalfa and Groups Pledge To Sue, While Interior Pulls GE Crops from Northeast Refuges
(Beyond Pesticides, January 28, 2011) Environmental and public interest groups are extremely disappointed with the announcement late Thursday that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) plans to fully deregulate genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa seed, despite the risks it poses to both organic and conventional farmers. Among those upset with the announcement are the cosponsors of the original Organic Foods Productions Act, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR), who have weighed in with their criticism of USDA’s decision.
This decision follows the agency’s completion of the court-mandated environmental impact statement (EIS) for GE alfalfa. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack called for “coexistence” among GE, organic and conventional non-GE farmers, despite the clear recognition in the EIS that GE contamination of organic and conventionally grown crops presents a huge problem. The EIS also fails to take into account the documented increase in herbicide-resistant “super weeds” that is requiring the use of highly toxic herbicide cocktails for weed control on conventional farms. Likewise, USDA has not shown that contamination-free coexistence with deregulated GE alfalfa is likely or possible.
“We’re disappointed with USDA’s decision and we will be back in court representing the interest of farmers, preservation of the environment, and consumer choice” said Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director for the Center for Food Safety (CFS). “USDA has become a rogue agency in its regulation of biotech crops and its decision to appease the few companies who seek to benefit from this technology comes despite increasing evidence that GE alfalfa will threaten the rights of farmers and consumers, as well as damage the environment.” The National Organic Coalition (NOC), of which Beyond Pesticides is a member, issued a statement criticizing the decision.
Alfalfa is the nation’s 4th largest crop, planted on over 21 million acres. Forage and hay are primary feed crops for dairy cows and beef cattle as well as pork, lamb, and sheep. It’s not just for livestock -some vegetable farmers use the hay as mulch and alfalfa meal as a beneficial soil amendment. Alfalfa sprouts constitute an important sector of the salad market and alfalfa also plays a major role in honey production.
Genetic engineering is often touted by chemical manufacturers as a way to reduce pesticide usage and increase disease resistance. In reality, it has actually been shown to increase pesticide usage, while disease resistant varieties are still largely in the experimental stages. Most GE crops currently on the market are genetically modified to be resistant to pests and pesticides through the incorporation of genes into food crops from a natural bacterium insecticide (Bt) or the development of herbicide-resistant crops. Thus, there are serious public health and pest resistance problems associated with GE crops. For instance, in a recent study by University of Notre Dame, scientists found that streams throughout the Midwest are contaminated with GE materials from corn crop byproducts, even six months after harvest. The long-term health effects of consuming GE food are still unknown. GE crops are also known to contaminate conventional non-GE and organic crops through “genetic drift” and take a toll on the environment by increasing resistant insects and weeds, contaminating water and affecting pollinators and other non-target organisms.
In a related announcement earlier this month, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service said that it has agreed to stop planting genetically engineered (GE) crops on all its refuges in a dozen Northeastern states, according to a settlement agreement in a lawsuit brought by conservation and food safety groups. Because the federal government would not agree to end illegal GE agriculture in refuges nationally, new litigation is being prepared in other regions where as many as 75 other national wildlife refuges now growing GE crops are vulnerable to similar suits.
The lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for Delaware, filed by the Widener Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic on behalf of Delaware Audubon Society, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and CFS, charged that the Fish & Wildlife Service had illegally entered into Cooperative Farming Agreements with private parties, allowing hundreds of acres on its Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware to be plowed over without the environmental review required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
In settling the suit, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service promised to revoke any authorization for further GE agriculture at Bombay Hook and the four other refuges with GE crops: the Rappahannock River Valley Refuge and the Eastern Shore of Virginia Refuge, Montezuma Refuge in New York and Blackwater Refuge of Maryland, unless and until an appropriate NEPA analysis is completed — a condition that has yet to be met for GE agriculture on a National Wildlife Refuge.
“For Delawareans, this is a victory for the protection of vital public resources in our state,” said Mark Martell, President of the Delaware Audubon Society. “Our aim was to end illegal and destructive agriculture on the Delaware refuges but we are delighted to have this victory extended to other refuges along the Great Eastern Flyway.”
In March 2009, the same groups won a similar lawsuit against GE plantings on Delaware’s Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge. In August 2009, several environmental groups led by CFS and PEER wrote to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to alert him to the implications of the Prime Hook ruling, asking him to “issue a moratorium on all GE crop cultivation in National Wildlife Refuges.” But Secretary Salazar never responded to the letter and his agency, which oversees the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, was unwilling to extend the Bombay Hook settlement beyond the Northeast region.
“Planting genetically engineered crops on wildlife refuges is resource management malpractice,” stated PEER Senior Counsel and Beyond Pesticides board member Paula Dinerstein, noting that Fish and Wildlife Service policy explicitly forbids “genetically modified agricultural crops in refuge management unless [they] determine their use is essential to accomplishing refuge purpose(s).” “GE crops serve no legitimate refuge purpose, thus refuge officials must resort to outright fictions to claim these crops benefit wildlife.”
National wildlife refuges have allowed farming for decades, but in recent years refuge farming has been converted to GE crops because that is only seed farmers can obtain. Today, the vast majority of crops grown on refuges are genetically engineered. Scientists warn that GE crops can lead to increased pesticide use on refuges and can harm birds, aquatic animals, and other wildlife.
Take Action – Call or email President Obama and USDA and tell them NOT to deregulate GE alfalfa
Please send your own comments (see suggested language below) and notify your networks, listserves, faith organizations, etc. and post on your website, urging other people/organizations to comment.
Suggested Language (add in your own):
“I am ___________, a farmer/citizen in (your state). Please do not to allow the commercial release of GE alfalfa. Before any release can happen, there must be independent scientific evaluation of public health, environmental, and economic consequences of that release, ongoing government oversight and protection, and a plan for compensation of those harmed by accidental contamination.”
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