USDA U-Turn on Roundup Ready Alfalfa

Despite a previous committment to full deregulation of biotech alfalfa, Sec. Tom Vilsack (right) is now entertaining the idea of releasing the crop with various restrictions.

Despite the USDA’s own proposal from last year, Sec. Vilsack’s department is now reversing course on deregulating Roundup Ready Alfalfa. According to the Department’s environmental review, the alfalfa was judged substantially equivalent to other varieties without red flags for regulators. But instead of taking the news as a green light to let the alfalfa on the market, as they have with other biotech plants like corn, USDA is waffling.

Now, the deregulation of Roundup Ready alfalfa could be accompanied by restrictions on seed production and, in some cases, cultivation of the hay itself, should USDA decide on implementing one of two preferred alternatives presented in a court-ordered environmental review of the crop.

The Wall Street Journal has strong words about the decision to “invite representatives from the biotech and organic industries to USDA in the coming days to discuss how the two farming methods may coexist.”

By suggesting that industry and activist groups negotiate compromises in advance of the final ruling on whether to deregulate, Mr. Vilsack is using the Department’s regulatory authority as leverage against businesses whose products are overwhelmingly regulated by USDA.

It gets worse. Mr. Vilsack’s authority in the regulatory decision-making process is based on the assumption of sound scientific data. But according to people who attended the meeting last Monday, the USDA Secretary told the assembled groups that science itself is subjective, and that he could have three different groups bring him three different supposedly scientific opinions.

The secretary might want to think long and hard about the slippery slope he is putting the reputation of the USDA on.

At issue is whether the risk of pollen drift and subsequent ‘contamination’ of nearby organic plots of alfalfa poses a significant risk. To mitigate the possible contamination, organic producers have suggested mandatory minimum planting distances and a USDA administered fund that would compensate organic farmers who were harmed by which way the wind was blowing. Some have also suggested a system whereby traditional farmers accept liability for any contamination of organic crops.

According to WSJ, “If this sounds like vintage antibiotech activist fare with the imprimatur of the USDA, you’re getting the picture.”

For Seceratary Vilsack, the move should not worry anyone who favors full deregulation of a product that his agency has deemed ‘safe’ to use.

“USDA’s consideration of seed-growing restrictions does not signal a drop in its commitment to the use of genetically modified crops,” Vilsack said . The release of the alfalfa EIS is a “first step,” he said, in a long-postponed conversation that needs to happen now.

“We have seen rapid adoption of biotechnology in agriculture, along with the rise of organic and nongenetically engineered sectors over the last several decades,” Vilsack said. “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.”

The decision to place restrictions on the crop may face a challenge from within the Administration. Among those with reason to be less than pleased with the USDA’s antics are the folks at the office of the U.S. Trade Representative, who have seen similar antibiotech strains in trade disputes with the European Union.

And while alfalfa may not be a major biotech crop, the dispute may set a regulatory precedent that could open the gate for further politically motivated challenges to future deregulation decisions like with wheat and sugar beets.

We think the WSJ is correct when it says that,

“If nonscience criteria are introduced as considerations for allowing the sale of biotech crops, the effect would be disastrous for the USDA’s regulatory reputation. We hope Secretary Vilsack makes his decision based on science, not politics.”

(Images: USDAgov)

6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Rob Jones on January 11, 2011 at 10:31 am

    I’m going to comment on a few phases in this piece that raise red flags.
    1.”substantially equivalent”- If all GM seeds truly were defined this way, why does the maker of these seeds march down to the patent office to gain exclusive ownership of the seed. By definition a patentable product must be substantially different to be patented.
    2. “USDA waffling”- The court decision made the USDA follow their own rules to do an environmental impact study which they had chosen not to do before making their initial “deemed safe” decision. In actuality what happen is the USDA was forced to use scientific methods to establish the safety of this product to all surrounding fields being exposed to it. When a child gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar and the parent changes that child’s behavior with appropriate measures, is that child waffling? In my estimation, the answer is no.
    3. discussions between “biotech and organic industries”- Then in the next paragraph “organic” is replaced with “the industry and activists”. Not only is organic industry changed to “activist groups” but it’s not even considered an industry. Now I’ll be the first to say that not all of the most vocal organic advocates are, shall I say, not the most tactful in expressing their views. But if we are going to lump all that pertains to “organic” as activists than let’s be consistent and honest in including all farm organizations as activists as well.

    I have a better idea.

    All scientific data can be gathered on both a Chevy and a Ford pickup. Therefore, one of the two can be proven to be the best,
    right? So how come not all of you reading this are driving Chevys? (just kidding) But the point I’m trying to make is this, there are two major roads to how you approach farming. What has become and now referred to as “conventional farming” is forcing nature and dealing with the consequences. The other is attempting to use nature and work with nature as much as possible and deal with those consequences. Obviously there are areas where blending of the two roads occur but the two philosophies are distinct.

    The word activist has a negative connotation to most of us as evidenced in the fact that most of us use the term to describe anyone having a view differing from our own. I prefer to be called an AGvocate and just as I choose to drive a Chevy, I have no problem with others choosing to drive a Ford or any other brand of pickup. I do have a problem with not being acknowledged as a legitimate part of agriculture.

    I’ve rambled too much now so I’ll close by saying that in the future I’ll probably be doing more of this and blogging as well. If you care to look in on my blog, drop me a note or follow me on Twitter. Thanks.


    • Posted by Shawn Martini on January 13, 2011 at 9:51 am

      Rob, I appreciate you position. You mentioned that you would be writing and blogging about this topic. Would you be interested in submitting a guest post or several, to The Pulse?


      • Hi Shawn,
        Sorry if I was venting a little, but the RR alfalfa thing really hits a nerve with me. I had all kinds of ideas for blogs during Christmas but lost the motivation, this writing thing is really hard for me it seems. If you have some specific topics you’d like my take on, lets try it and see what happens. I know my view point is fairly different from most FB people, but I think they need to hear “the other side” of the issues because there definitely is. I can get pretty emotional about some of these things but I think I also use pretty sound science as well. Thanks for your reply. I put the blog site in the box, hopefully it’s right.

  2. Posted by Shirley Casper on January 14, 2011 at 11:28 pm

    Hi fellas,

    I share your concerns with GMO/biotech. I personally know of 5 farmers that are having major difficulty in getting their cattle to breed back. One of them is my uncle. All 5 of these have been feeding lots of GMO corn and beans over the years and private research has now revealed that sterility follows that feeding in the 3rd and 4th generation down the line. GMO out in 1996, 2011 and you’ll be in the sticks. I talked to my brothers AI technician and he is fully aware of the problem, he is aware, but seems scared to talk to loudly. (There would be less work for him if the cattle did stick.)
    The fight to expose GMO for what it really is must continue. The relationship with the backdoor between Monsanto and the FB must also continue!


  3. […] Honestly, contamination, this is a serious issue. So what is the answer to the dilemma? […]


  4. […] step to ensure that this issue received the broadest examination before making its final decision. USDA brought together a diverse group of stakeholders to discuss feasible strategies for coexistence between genetically engineered, organic and other […]


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