The Obama administration struck a blow to freedom in food and agriculture late January when the USDA deregulated genetically modified alfalfa seed. The agency’s decision threatens to deprive farmers of the right to produce GM-free milk and meat, while denying consumers the right to purchase it. It also threatens the relevance of the USDA’s organic program.
And then a week later, on Feb. 4, the USDA did it again, this time by partially deregulating GM sugar beet seed.
Both announcements were great news for behemoth agricultural biotechnology corporation Monsanto, which owns both types of GM seeds—and USDA chief Tom Vilsack as well, apparently. Vilsack’s trips on Monsanto corporate jets while governor of Iowa are well documented, and his “Governor of the Year” award from the Biotechnology Industry Association was surely well deserved. Indeed, both of Vilsack’s recent deregulations were big victories for the biotech industry as a whole. And the sugar beet move is especially chilling to those harboring fears of a GM planet.
Nearly all the sugar beet seed produced in the country—conventional and organic alike—is grown in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The reason is simple: It’s the nation’s best spot to grow beets (and chard, too, which cross-pollinates with beets). If genetically altered beets are planted in the Willamette Valley, regular beet (and chard) plants risk exposure to GM pollen.
GM alfalfa is to organic dairy what the Trojan Horse was to Troy.
The end result is that growers may be forced out or overtaken, voluntarily or otherwise, by genetically modified DNA. Once the GM sugar beets go to seed, finding traditional beets or chard will become difficult, if not impossible. And once the first crop of deregulated alfalfa goes to seed, the prospects of a future with non-GM meat and dairy will dim considerably.
In the case of alfalfa, even the corporate-rights activist group also known as the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that deregulated GM alfalfa presents risks to the environment, consumers and business. Over the summer, the court ruled that the USDA must complete an Environmental Impact Statement before deregulation could occur.
In response to this ruling, the USDA dutifully held a public comment period and drafted an EIS, which contained plenty of reasons to be wary of GM alfalfa. The agency then proceeded to ignore these warnings and grant full deregulation anyway.
In choosing this path, the agriculture department decided against the more conservative option of partial deregulation, which would have provided mechanisms for keeping track of what happens to the genes that Monsanto will be releasing into the environment.
At a minimum, such oversight would be a really good idea, since GM alfalfa is to organic dairy what the Trojan Horse was to Troy. Alfalfa is pollinated by bees, which can fly as far as 5 miles in a trip. When non-GM alfalfa is pollinated with pollen from GM alfalfa plants, seeds containing the lab-modified DNA sequences are produced. Alfalfa is a perennial that can generate 15,000 seeds a year and live for decades, even centuries. Once GM pollen is out of the bag, putting it back in would be like repacking Pandora’s box. It’s not going to happen.
Once GM pollen is out of the bag, putting it back in would be like repacking Pandora’s box. It’s not going to happen.
It’s a matter of when—not if—GM alfalfa DNA starts showing up in the feed of organic dairy cows. A Feb. 7 AP report said contamination of organic and traditional crops is viewed as inevitable by agricultural experts, “despite Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s recent assurances the federal government would take steps to prevent such a problem.”
When the genes escape, organic regulators will find themselves in a tricky spot: Either revoke organic certification from the offending food manufacturer—who’s actually a victim of GM contamination—or broaden organic standards to allow GM. The latter would be a dream come true for the biotech seed industry. GM alfalfa may represent a foot in the door of the coveted organic market—the food industry’s fastest-growing segment.
I spoke with two New Mexico dairy farmers, both of whom say they’re committed to feeding their cattle non-GM feed. Neither showed much concern that USDA’s shenanigans will affect their operations. “I’ll always make sure my supplier is nowhere near GM seed,” said one, who added he doesn’t like the idea of GM alfalfa because it’s “not natural.” The other farmer seemed to think that the high-altitude source where her seed comes from is immune to GM alfalfa infiltration. I hope they’re right, but part of me wishes the producers and consumers of GM-free food would be more like bees, swarming every time their freedom is threatened.
The genes will spread, no matter how carefully the USDA and Monsanto try to prevent it. The genes will spread because that’s what genes do.
It appears that the USDA’s goal is getting both alfalfa and sugar beet seed planted as soon as possible. It’s been able to do so legally (if sleazily) with alfalfa, but not with sugar beets. Perhaps the urgency, from Monsanto’s perspective, is that Vilsack only has two more years of guaranteed influence. After the 2012 election, who knows? Since beets take two years to flower, Vilsack’s golden window closes this spring. Planting now gives the beets enough time to contaminate the Willamette Valley with their pollen before the possible arrival of a new USDA chief, who might not be in Monsanto’s front pocket.
While GM alfalfa threatens to blanket the country with pollen that will eventually find its way into dairy and meat supplies, GM sugar beet seed is an efficient surgical strike at beet central. In both cases, more genetically modified DNA is poised for injection into the food chain and the environment.
Tom Philpott, senior food and agriculture writer at Grist.org, points out that we can find a bit of comfort in the fact that, unlike the deregulation of alfalfa, the deregulation of sugar beet seed is partial, meaning the USDA is supposed to monitor where the GM beets are planted and make sure the genes don’t spread.
But the genes will spread, no matter how carefully the USDA and Monsanto try to prevent it. The genes will spread because that’s what genes do.
Those who oppose the planting of GM alfalfa and sugar beet seeds have two significant milestones to consider in their planning. The first is preventing the seeds from being planted. If that fails, the next and final chance will be to make sure the plants are destroyed before they flower. After that, once the pollen gets released, game over.
The court system offers the best legal opportunity to achieve one of these defensive stops, and that possibility is real. The Center for Food Safety may be an underdog, but it’s pulled upsets before—including against the Vilsack USDA. The nonprofit is active in alfalfa and sugar beet litigation, and contributing to its legal fund probably provides the most bang for your buck. Or take a page from Monsanto: Buy land upwind from a GM field, spray obscene amounts of nasty pesticides on windy days, then sue Monsanto for stealing the chemicals that fall on its plants.
That might be fun, but my money’s on the Center for Food Safety. And if you’re concerned about genetically modified DNA in your food, it’s time to get to work.