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Bad Bad Bad News: USDA Caves to Industry Pressure on GE Alfalfa

by: Jill Richardson

Thu Jan 27, 2011 at 14:52:05 PM PST

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For all of the talk of coexistence, USDA has decided where their allegiance lies. Despite earlier suggestions that they might only partially deregulate GE alfalfa (with some attempt at buffer zones to keep it from cross-pollinating organic and non-GE alfalfa seeds), they have gone ahead with full deregulation. That means you can grow whatever you want, wherever you want, no matter what it is going to contaminate.

This is a bit of a first, as I've said before. It's not the first GE crop to be grown commercially in the U.S. But it's a first in terms of the impact it will have. Most corn grown in the U.S. is hybrid, which means that the genes in the seed corn farmers plant have been carefully selected. It's likely that some GE contamination occurs in corn, but for the most part, if you try to buy GE-free corn, that's what you'll get. But alfalfa is open pollinated, which means that the alfalfa grown to produce seed sold around the country can be easily contaminated with GE traits.

Truly, this is devastating. Not only for the impact it will have on organic farmers, but also in terms of what it tells us about the USDA. A release from The Cornucopia Institute says:

...the agency, under heavy pressure from the biotech sector, chose total deregulation.  Over 250,000 public comments were received during the FEIS process, with the vast majority opposing deregulation.

Vilsack did announce that the USDA WOULD establish a second germ plasm/seed center for alfalfa in the state of Idaho to try, and the operative word is "try," to maintain GE-free strains of alfalfa.

There you are. The majority of 250,000 citizens vs. the biotech lobby. I think, at a minimum, the USDA should now be required to stop referring to itself as "The People's Department" (the name Lincoln gave it when he founded it in the 1860's).

Press coverage:
NYT: Agriculture Agency Approves Planting of Modified Alfalfa
Des Moines Register: Vilsack decides against biotech restrictions

Jill Richardson :: Bad Bad Bad News: USDA Caves to Industry Pressure on GE Alfalfa
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250,000 (4.00 / 2)
The number is important in itself, but the composition is important also. Comments from "ordinary citizens" might have split, I don't know, but I bet comments from the organic community were uniformly against deregulation - subject to the qualification we've already discussed in the wake of USDAs determination that it would not consider not deregulating. Organic meat and dairy producers in the U.S. and Canada already have found sourcing organic feed from North American suppliers is very difficult, and many have turned to sources in China and other countries. Well, you've discussed this aspect already. The point is, Vilsack completely and cavalierly blew off any concern about organics. So there will probably be a seed bank in case a problem develops, which it will. Then what? Will they try to establish the restricted regime that should have been released today? Will they try to get rid of GE alfalfa altogether?

This barn will catch fire. The prudential course would have been to avoid burning down the barn, instead of trying to resurrect the barn after it is gone.

Property Rights! Freedom! (4.00 / 3)
I'm eagerly awaiting the Property Rights activists to file suit against USDA for infringing on the right of an organic alfalfa farmers to grow uncontaminated alfalfa on their own property.

Or the Tea Party to make a ruckus about this because it decreases our freedom to choose dairy from cows fed only non-GM alfalfa.  And the freedom to grow crops without being contaminated.  

I won't hold my breath.

The problem isn't with people growing organic alfalfa on their property (4.00 / 2)
If you have a field of orgaic alfalfa and someone plants RR alfalfa in the field next to you, unless you're growing that alfalfa for seed, you need not worry unless your neighbor is spraying like crazy.

The vast majority of alfalfa growers are growing for forage, not seed.

However, for those farms growing for seed, this is a HUGE problem.

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

[ Parent ]
please explain. (4.00 / 2)
How does the organic farmer not end up with RR alfalfa in his crop next year? Not insinuating that you're incorrect, I just would like to know the answer.

[ Parent ]
Alfalfa's a perennial (4.00 / 3)
so if you're growing non-GMO alfalfa now, that's what you'll have next year. If you till that field under and plant more elsewhere, it depends on whether your seed is contaminated or not. Joanne, do people save seeds or just buy them?

"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 need more info. (4.00 / 2)
I'm still not clear. I understand, the plants that are non-GMO this year will be non-GMO next year. Is it also true that the crop is fastidiously, meticulously, diligently harvested before seeds can be produced to contaminate next year's crop?

[ Parent ]
well the bigger deal (4.00 / 3)
is the contamination of the crops of the farmers who grow alfalfa for seed. THAT is the real problem. The biggest problem. If someone is growing alfalfa specifically TO PRODUCE SEEDS - seeds that they will sell - and that alfalfa gets contaminated, then you've got GE seeds going everywhere to farmers who are planting.

"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 ]
the bigger deal (4.00 / 3)
maybe. I wonder what the forage growers think.

[ Parent ]
well they are probably plenty pissed as well nt (4.00 / 3)

"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 ]
Alfalfa grown for forage (4.00 / 3)
is typically cut many times during it's growing season. Like your lawn, it's a cut-and-come-again crop. The alfalfa fields around me are generally cut every 4-6 weeks during the spring/summer/early fall. They cut when the stuff's around knee high.

With grass hays, you might get two cuttings if the year is a good one, you have a chance to cut reall early, and it stays warm with enough rain to grow the grass to a harvestable stage in the fall. Usually, though, around here, hay farmers only get one cutting.

As an aside, when I was cutting hay with the scythe, I'd get 3 cuttings out of each pen for grass hay, but I was cutting very small patches, cutting for the first time in May, and was curing the hay in the barn.

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

[ Parent ]
Alfalfa that's grown for forage (4.00 / 3)
is harvested before flowering. Like your lawn it comes back year after year, cutting after cutting and is never allowed to flower or set seed.

There wouldn't be any point to anyone saving seed, unless they're growing specifically for seed. Seed saving for grasses, especially for pasture or forage crop planting takes very specialized equipment as far as cleaning the seed.

The coop, Wilco Farm Stores, originally began as a seed cleaning coop for grass seed. I think they're still the biggest grass seed cleaners in Oregon.

Now, if you were growing alfalfa specifically for seed, then you'd have big issues if someone was growing a seed field next to you (or within a mile, etc.)

The problem with contamination is with growing specifically for seed. Oilseed rape (aka canola) is grown for its seed, likewise soy beans, cotton is grown for its fibre with comes I think after pollination. Those plants have to mature and go through their reproductive cycles because the result of a successfull reproductive cycle is your crop.

Most alfalfa farms don't grow for seed, they grow for forage. If the crop is allowed to go to seed, I think the feed quality goes down. Unlike grasses, where you want them to flower and set seed, and you want that seed head at a certain stage in its development, in order to get the highest nutrition out of the crop.

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

[ Parent ]
Thank you (4.00 / 2)
for your fulsome answers. Now I know a lot more than I did yesterday.

[ Parent ]
You're welcome (4.00 / 3)
I try to help out where/when I can.  :-)

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

[ Parent ]
Vilsack (4.00 / 2)
Don't I remember that Jill spoke to at least one farmer in Iowa (more than a year ago) who couldn't grow non-GMO crops because of the ubiquity of cross contamination? Or was he unable to grow organics because of the ubiquity of chemical contamination? Doesn't matter, the point is that Vilsack is from Iowa and he very well knows the consequences of his action today. He can't pretend ignorance, he can't feign uncertainty.

Follow the money... (4.00 / 2)
Vilsack and Obama have been bought off. What more do you need to know? The USA is not a democracy, it is a corporate plutocracy. Obama's words are nothing but bullshit.

[ Parent ]
And they don't even bother hiding it much anymore... (4.00 / 2)
Note that a government agency presented their ultimate 'decision' intially as a choice between deregulation or more deregulation.

Just wait, two or three election cycles from now we'll drop the whole charade altogether, and teevee on 'presidential election night' will simply replace the map of states turning red or blue with a chart of corporations making their choices by checkmark instead.

"And Wolf, we're hearing Microsoft and Goldman have decided to stick with President Bachmann.  She is now ensured reselection for another six year term.  The American CEOs have spoken, now is not the time to change course in the midst of our wars with Sri Lanka and Hawaii."

[ Parent ]
You forgot (4.00 / 2)
Granada and Belize.

[ Parent ]
Media didn't cover those... (4.00 / 3)
They were staked out in front of Charlie Sheen's hotel room for 45 days at that time.


[ Parent ]
that farmer (4.00 / 3)
grew GE crops bc his neighbors grew 'em and then sprayed Roundup all over, which drifted to his fields and killed his non-GE corn.

"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 ]
points? (4.00 / 1)
My explicit point was, Vilsack is Iowan. My implicit point was, buffer zones are essential.

Are buffer zones essential?

[ Parent ]
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