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.
Supreme Court justices on Tuesday sharply questioned a lower court’s decision that has prohibited Monsanto Co. from selling biotech alfalfa seeds, possibly paving the way for the company to distribute the seeds for the first time since 2007.
Several justices appeared skeptical that the lower court had the authority to fully ban the sale of the product because of a pending environmental review. Chief Justice John Roberts questioned why the court issued the injunction instead of simply sending the matter back to USDA.
Justice Antonin Scalia appeared even more wary, questioning the idea that genetically modified crops could contaminate other crops. “This isn’t the contamination of the New York City water supply,” he said. “This isn’t the end of the world, it really isn’t.”
Monsanto argues that the ban was too broad and was based on the assumption that their products were harmful. Opponents of the use of genetically engineered seeds say they can contaminate conventional crops, but Monsanto says such cross-pollination is unlikely.
The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments Tuesday involving a federal judge’s temporary ban on Roundup Ready Alfalfa, setting the stage for the court’s first-ever ruling on biotech crops.
Legal experts do not expect a blockbuster decision on the merits of regulating biotech crops, but the case, Monsanto Co. v. Geertson Seed Farms, has drawn widespread interest because the justices could issue a ruling that would raise or lower the threshold for challenges under the National Environmental Policy Act.
Monsanto appealed to the Supreme Court last year after the 9th Circuit Court upheld the ban for the second time. The American Farm Bureau Federation disagreed with the ruling by the 9th Circuit, arguing with its conclusion that the mere fact that a product is genetically engineered constitutes harm to the environment. AFBF believes this is contrary to the overwhelming body of scientific evidence.
The Obama administration wants to add $408 million to a global fund to boost food production and encourage good farming practices in the developing world, the Treasury Department announced on Thursday.
The fund, created after the Group of 20 meeting in Pittsburgh last year, will begin with contributions from the governments of Canada ($230 million), Spain ($95 million) and South Korea ($50 million) and from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation ($30 million). It is meant to provide money to poorer countries, particularly in Africa, that invest in local farming programs and agricultural development that is meant to increase crop yields, administration officials said.
Mr. Gates and Secretary Geithner have made their case for this new initiative in the pages of today’s Wall Street Journal.
Bill Gates is an advocate of biotech seeds and crops and supports their use to help alleviate global hunger.
While sales of organic food have taken a hit in recent months, new research shows that consumers will be purchasing more of the product in the next few years. The natural and organic food and beverage category saw rapid growth of more than 24 percent from 2006 to 2008 but stalled during the recession in 2009, with sales up just 1.8 percent.
Sales are now forecast to grow nearly 20 percent from 2010 to 2012, indicating that going organic has become a way of life for some.
USDA, which runs the National Organic Program, considers organic agriculture a “production philosophy” and has stated that an organic label does not imply that a product is superior to conventionally produced foods. Nutritionists are saying there is no need to eat organic to be healthy, and it is more important to choose less processed food and more fruits and vegetables.
Last summer, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a comprehensive systemic review that concluded organic and conventional food have comparable nutrient levels.
The New York Times economics blog, Freakonomics, (which follows the methodology of the best selling book by the same name) has outlined what it calls the ‘Primitive Food Movement’ in a recent post.
Americans are currently embracing a strange sort of primitivism… This trend appears to be a unique response to a declension narrative that goes something like this: Americans once lived on small farms, ate locally produced food, did not poison the soil with chemicals, and always knew from whence their food came…
Current calls for dietary simplicity might have a revolutionary ring to them. But what’s overlooked in all the enthusiasm is this: Americans have always idealized, or at least harkened back to, an agricultural era when production was supposedly simpler, closer to the land, and unadulterated by the complexities of modernization.
According to the author, calls for ‘simple food’ were taking place during the Civil war and earlier.
After years of approximating the increasingly luxuriant habits of Empire, early Americans reacted to independence by playing up their status as rough-hewn frontiersmen and self-sufficient survivalists. In terms of food, this self-identification meant rejecting luxury for—you got it—the primitive simplicity of the first European settlers.
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