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Republican Ag Leadership Supports GE Alfalfa

by: Jill Richardson

Wed Jan 19, 2011 at 14:14:00 PM PST


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Three influential Republicans just sent a letter (posted below) to Tom Vilsack, urging a speedy legalization of GE alfalfa, without all of these namby-pamby restrictions on where it can be grown. (One of the proposed options the USDA is considering includes geographic restrictions would supposedly protect other farmers growing alfalfa from pollen drift and genetic contamination, something the Republicans apparently feel is a stupid thing to worry about.) The three Republicans who signed the letter are Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK), Chair of the House Ag Committee; Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), Ranking Republican on the Senate Ag Committee; and Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS).
Jill Richardson :: Republican Ag Leadership Supports GE Alfalfa
January 19, 2011

The Honorable Tom Vilsack Secretary
United States Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20250

Dear Secretary Vilsack:

Recently, the Department convened a forum of stakeholders to discuss alfalfa co-existence.  The issue has generated a significant amount of controversy and emotion with implications for the future of agricultural biotechnology in the United States and around the world.  Since 1996, the innovation and adoption of agricultural biotechnology has not only brought significant environmental benefits, it has likewise contributed to higher yields, greater production, and higher profitability for U.S. farmers.  Each year, new products are brought to market under the oversight of a science based regulatory process that has no equal in the world.  This "Coordinated Framework" between the Department of Agriculture (USDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) combines each agency's professionalism and expertise.

The forum followed the release of a final environmental impact statement (EIS) that evaluates the potential environmental effects of deregulating genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa.  While the final EIS concluded that GE Alfalfa does not pose a plant pest risk, it nonetheless contained a significant departure from existing policy since it includes a third option to grant non-regulated status to the product with geographic restrictions and isolation distances.  These options had not previously been published in either the draft or final Environmental Assessment nor the draft EIS.  This is the first time these measures would be included in a regulatory decision where the crop did not pose a plant pest or health risk. The solitary reason for the "conditions" would be to interfere in planting decisions based on the risk of economic harm due to pollen drift.

As you acknowledge, the science strongly supports the safety of GE alfalfa.  The National Environmental Policy Act was specifically written to address the potential impacts of regulatory decisions on the environment.  The Act is neither designed nor well suited to manage or determine the economic relationships in the agriculture sector.  The third alternative steps beyond the scope of the Act and is a poor substitute for existing options available for farmers to amicably resolve the concerns regarding co-existence of agriculture biotechnology, conventional and organic crops.

The proposed third alternative is equally troubling due to the precedent it will set for open pollinated crops in the future.  For example, with 86 percent of the corn crop and 93 percent of cotton planted to biotech varieties last year, the decisions made in the context of alfalfa will be felt across the country.  Further, the implications of such decisions could potentially hinder the future development of varieties necessary to address the growing needs to produce more food, fiber and fuel on the same amount of land with fewer inputs.

It is unfortunate that those critical of the technology have decided to litigate and as you rightly point out that courts may unwisely interfere in normal commerce.  However, the alternative you propose and include in the EIS is equally disturbing since it politicizes the regulatory process and goes beyond your statutory authority and indeed Congress' intent in the Plant Protection Act (PPA).  The PPA requires the Secretary to make a scientific determination if the product under review is a plant pest (7 U.S.C. 7711(c)(3)).  If the final decision is that the product is not a plant pest, nor would the movement of the product in question impose the risk of dissemination of a plant pest, then USDA has no authority to impose further restrictions (7 U.S.C. 7712(a)).

We support a conversation between those supportive and critical of agriculture biotechnology.  However, suggestions that aspects of the conversation thus far have been taking place with the regulated entity under duress by the regulator are of equal concern.  Decisions should be based on science with other factors more appropriately considered in the market place.  Our government fought diligently to preserve the integrity of science based decision making in the World Trade Organization and the success in that body should not be so casually set aside.

We appreciate your attention to our concerns and look forward working with you on this important issue.

Very truly yours,

U.S. Senator Saxby Chambliss
U.S. Senator Pat Roberts
U.S. Representative Frank Lucas

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Ha... (4.00 / 2)
However, suggestions that aspects of the conversation thus far have been taking place with the regulated entity under duress by the regulator are of equal concern.

Ah, yes.  The absolutely pitiless, savage dictatorial Obama Regulatory Regime strikes a brutal blow against business once again!  Will corporate America ever catch a break?

(rolling eyes...)

Oh, and then there's the little fact that that sentence makes absolutely no sense.  Can anybody help me out here?


What I find most interesting (4.00 / 2)
is that no Dems signed onto this. I wonder why not?

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
Have any Dems (4.00 / 1)
sent a letter urging no deregulation?

[ Parent ]
Deregulation... (4.00 / 1)
There's another word for that - lawlessness.

Oh, and to answer your question - no.  They'd be scolded by the president and the media for not being Serious People.


[ Parent ]
Not to my knowledge (4.00 / 2)
although that doesn't rule it out. I would doubt too many Dems are willing to stick their necks out against GMOs. The Vilsack line about "coexistence" and hinting at geographic restrictions seems to be the best we can hope for right now.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
I have a question for the senators who signed this letter (4.00 / 2)
and it's a rhetorical question, but one I think is important and should be asked anyway.

While I can understand the importance of killing noxious weeds in an alfalfa stand, I wonder if the senators have considered how they expect the farmers to kill the alfalfa if it's resistant to glyphosate.

I was just over at Today's Tractors forum. In this thread about killing alfalfa so that other crops could be planted, the most common process was to spray the field with a tank mix of glyphosate (roundup) and 2,4-D. The 2,4-D was to make the glyphosate more effective (this was on alfalfa that I'm assuming was not glyphosate resistant).

So, if the alfalfa is already glyphosate resistant, then how are farmers expected to kill the crop? Alfalfa has a deep root system, and without chemicals, the best way to kill the crop (alfalfa is a perenial) if no chemical treatment is used, is to deep till the field. Even with deep tilling, you're still going to have the plants come back, I mean, not the whole field, but some plants.

I mean, even given the importance of eliminating noxious weeds (which can kill livestock) from the alfalfa crop, do the senators really want to make it necessary for farmers to have to resort to even harsher chemicals so that they can plant crops in rotation on fields of RR alfalfa?

The other plants that are glyphosate resistant grown for crops are sugar beets (a biennial grown for crops as an annual), canola (oilseed rape - an annual), rice (an annual), cotton (grown as an annual although it is a tropical perenial), and corn (an annual). Planting different different crops to fields planted to corn, cotton, soy, rice or sugar beets is a simple matter and does not necessitate the spraying of herbicides. But planting a field to something other than alfalfa appears to require herbicide applications and/or deep tilling to kill the roots.

Do the senators really want farmers to have to resort to more extreme chemicals that glyphosate and 2,4-D?

Normal people scare me.... But not as much as I scare them.


That's one problem (4.00 / 1)
and you're right, the question is important.

Another question is, what happens when the weeds associated with the alfalfa fields become resistant, as they surely will. I have read that cotton farmers have had to abandon fields with glyphosphate-resistant Palmer amaranth. Palmer amaranth in a cotton field is bad enough, but in an alfalfa field? It is toxic to livestock! Also, it is open pollinated.

Palmer amaranth is of course only one example of a weed that can cause problems.


[ Parent ]
Interesting, (4.00 / 1)
I didn't know about the nitrates in Palmer Amaranth. Considering the picture and description in the wikipedia article I just read, I wonder if it's Palmer Amaranth I've been harvesting here.

I harvest it for greens (for myself as well as the CSA members). I also harvest it for green manure (plant manure), and feed it to the livestock (although I probably don't feed enough of it to be toxic to the animals). Considering how good the plant is at pulling nitrogen out of the soil, I should start harvesting (by hand pulling) for use as fertilizer in the raised rows. I can clip the root ball off of the plant and then chop it and place it at the bottom of the raised rows like I do with grass clippings. Grass clippings, especially in the spring, can be an incredibly rich source of nitrogen for row crops if used properly. They're the only reason I have a lawn. Otherwise I'd have the front covered with gravel for customer parking, and the back would be covered with wood chips and landscaped to edible or medicinal crops up to the house.

I get really nice yields on my potatoes using grass clippings. Dig your rows deeper than you normally would ( like twice as deep). Place a layer of grass clippings in the row, cover with a 3"-4" layer of soil, then place your seed potatoes on that and cover. Your potato plants will outshine everyone else's (unless they're using grass clippings too), and you'll have more 'taters that you can shake a stick at.

Normal people scare me.... But not as much as I scare them.


[ Parent ]
Thanks for that suggestion about using grass to grow potatoes. (4.00 / 1)
I've never seen that in any garden books. I'll try that this year: it's really an intriguing idea.

[ Parent ]
Wow, Joanne (4.00 / 1)
you are SO RIGHT.  

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
Thanks Jill (4.00 / 2)
I just thought it was an angle I hadn't heard anyone discuss yet.

Normal people scare me.... But not as much as I scare them.

[ Parent ]
well I've passed your comment along (4.00 / 1)
to a number of folks who are far more knowledgeable and influential than me so we'll see what comes of it. But truly, it was a VERY important point and it's possible you're literally the first person to think of it.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
Hey, whadda ya know (4.00 / 1)
it's true - "Even a blind hog finds an acorn occasionally", in reference to myself. Ha! I got one.

;-)

Normal people scare me.... But not as much as I scare them.


[ Parent ]
biotech benefits (0.00 / 0)
Since 1996, the innovation and adoption of agricultural biotechnology has not only brought significant environmental benefits, it has likewise contributed to higher yields, greater production, and higher profitability for U.S. farmers.

Is any of that true?

Environmental benefits from genetic engineering?
Higher yields from genetic engineering?
Higher profitability for U.S. farmers from genetic engineering?

Is any of that true?


Good questions (4.00 / 1)
I think it depends on how one defines genetic engineering. The boitech companies are trying to redefine genetic engineering to include selective breeding by traditional methods. If one accepts that deffinition, then any hybridizing or selection done intentionally by a plant breeder or a farmer that results in increased yields due to adaptation to a specific micro climate, farming methods, improved disease/pest resistance, etc., would qualify as a benefit from genetic engineering.

I think that most of us here would probably not consider selective breeding using those traditional methods to be genetic engineering.

Here's the Miriam Webster's definition of genetic engineering

the group of applied techniques of genetics and biotechnology used to cut up and join together genetic material and especially DNA from one or more species of organism and to introduce the result into an organism in order to change one or more of its characteristics

But even given that, I can understand the logic that the biotech industry is using in trying to redefine what genetic engineering is. What do you do when you hand pollinate, or do intentionall breeding by deciding which animals will mate? You are intentionally guiding (and controlling to a greater or lesser degree) which genes have the opportunity to combine into a new organism, therefore the plant and animal breeder is manipulating the genetic makeup of those organisms.

Even with open pollinated plants, or with animals that are allowed to breed indistriminantly, if you do any selection of offspring, you're manipulating the genetic makeup of subsequent breeding populations through culling.

I wouldn't be surprised if their thinking is that what they are doing is just more sophisticated and focused than the hit/miss methods traditional breeders use.

As far as yield increases go, I do have to agree with that. Not saying it's necessarily a good thing or a bad thing, but yields have increased as a direct result of the genetic engineering and biotechnology. Some examples -

BT (Bacillus thurengiensis) gene introduced into corn and cotton has reduced damage caused by pests succeptable to the crystal protein produced by the plants with the bacteria's gene. Less damage means higher yield. It's really that simple. On the other hand, if the suseptible pests aren't present in the first place, the gene isn't doing anything, and over use of the gene or of the bacteria if applied as a spray (as in organic agriculture), can and apparently has produced resistance in some populations of diamond moth.

Same's true with the gene(s) for glyphosate resistance. Plant the seed, spray the field, kill the weeds, less competition from the weeds for sunlight, space, nutrients, etc. your yields are going to be higher. However, glyphosate resistance in weed population is well documented for the same reason as Bt resistance is showing up in the moths.

Are the two better for the environment? Not necessarily. I suppose resistance to Bt cry proteins would make those formerly suceptable insects happy. But I don't think it's necessarily good for the environment. And resistance to glyphosate in weeds, if it makes the farmer use more harsh chemicals, really isn't better for the environment either. At least I don't think so.

Do they increase profits for farmers? Maybe, maybe not. I'd have to know in real dollars what the cost of production per bushell or hundred weight was with the old varieties vs what the cost of production is with the new varieties. Unless you know those things and compare those costs with what farmers were getting in the past and what they're getting now, there's really no way to know if the GE varieties are more proffitable than the old varieties.

Normal people scare me.... But not as much as I scare them.


[ Parent ]
You're correct but (0.00 / 0)
I think it depends on how one defines genetic engineering.

Right, but in this one case, Lucas et alia define it as something that began in 1996. They aren't pushing traditional breeding.


[ Parent ]
You're perhaps not correct. (0.00 / 0)
 
Less damage means higher yield. It's really that simple.

And

Same's true with the gene(s) for glyphosate resistance. Plant the seed, spray the field, kill the weeds, less competition from the weeds for sunlight, space, nutrients, etc. your yields are going to be higher.

I know the sales propaganda, but I asked about actual results. You would be correct if results with the new varieties were compared to other varieties with no pest management, but that is not the benchmark.


[ Parent ]
The competition issue isn't sales propaganda (0.00 / 0)
it's the truth. There's a reason why people weed. I've had crops over taken by weeds. If the weeds out compete the crop you want, you better hope you can drum up a market for the weeds because your crop is either going to die or it's going to be sickly and not produce. I lost almost my whole onion harvest to dog fennel last year. Been there done that.

When I planted the bulb onion sets (around 15#, a bit over 2,000 of them), I planted them dense, so dense I couldn't get in there and weed by hand. I had hoped that the onions would be so dense they'd get the jump on the dog fennel and out compete it. Unfortunately the dog fennel, once it got going, just flew past the onions growth wise, over took them, shaded them and all of the onions, with the exception of a couple hundred I was able to pick and sell as green onions, rotted in the ground. The victim of some very agressive dog fennel and my misguided planting strategy.

I had to deal with an absolutely outstanding amaranth crop last year as well. I harvest and sell the amaranth for greens, and what I don't use for greens, I'm able to pull the stuff and use it for fertilizer, but even at that the amaranth laast year tried to outcompete the pole beans (nothing can out compete pole beans, they grow too fast and are to rapacious, however, if I'd planted bush beans I would have been sunk). The stuff also damn near out competed the corn. At the end of summer I had to go out there with the loppers and log the amaranth like small timber.

The whole pitch for the RR crops was that farmers could go out there with a boom truck and spray once or twice a year, or however often they needed. On their equipment, at just the right time.

Not having to hire and be dependant on crews to hand weed/hoe fields. Even as expensive as the seed and chemicals are, I'll bet they are less expensive than paying day labor, or being subject to scheduling issues that may mean that the field doesn't get weeded at a time when the weeding would be relatively easy to do by hand, take less time and cost less in labor expenses.

Weeds are a very real problem, especially agressive ones.

I can't use roundup out here on the gardens, but I do have an emergent herbicide I'm going to try out this year.

Last fall I bought 50# of corn gluten meal. The proteins are supposed to be an emergent weed killer. It's indescriminant and works by dessicating the seedlings as they emerge, so I'll have to plant everything as well established seedlings (once a plant has an established root system it's not going to be harmed by the corn gluten meal). The stuff also acts as a slow release fertilizer and in the bag is feed grade, meaning I could feed it to the chickens if I wanted to and it'd be safe for them. That's my 'Roundup'. That's one reason I learned to up my seedling production to a minimum of 40,000/month. I'm going to need half of that each month just to meet crop production goals for this year.

You always have weeds. They are always a danger to your crops, and they will never go away. There are only three ways to deal with them - mechanically, chemically or with a barrier.

Mechanically = hand pulling, cultivating with a tractor and implements, hand hoeing.

Chemically = Sprays and things like the corn gluten meal

Barriers = planting into plastic or another barrier, which brings with it things like fungus, and other organisms that can injure or kill your crop. I have an idea that's one reason why strawberry growers fumigate the ground before planting. Barriers are nice for some crops, but they won't work for most for various reasons.

So yah, I can understand perfectly why farms adopted the RR crops and why they could increase yields and if not increase proffits, at least reduce overhead. Anything to reduce the need for labor. A farmer can spray a whole field by himself. He can't hand weed a field by himself.

Normal people scare me.... But not as much as I scare them.


[ Parent ]
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