Sunday, January 30, 2011

Gardening on trial: genetically modified alfalfa deregulated

Finally, my gardening and trial-watching overlap. Thursday 27-January-2011, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack (D-IA) decided the U.S. Dep’t of Agriculture (USDA) will fully deregulate genetically engineered (GE) Roundup Ready® (RR) Alfalfa. While I am upset and depressed about this move, I’m more grateful than ever to have an organic vegetable garden and more determined than ever to be a better gardener.

This story on RR Alfalfa started with a lawsuit in 2006 (details here), brought by organic farmers against Monsanto and a subsequent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on 21-June-2010. That was the first Supreme Court ruling on a genetically modified (GM) crop and was a decision that basically put the power in the hands of the USDA on these issues. Seems like lately, USDA decisions have aligned with the desires of biotech, big agribusiness, and herbicide industries.

Why am I so depressed about this move?

1) Alfalfa is used as a forage crop to feed livestock; it affects meat and dairy products...and more.
If cows are fed GE crops, those cows' milk cannot be (labeled as) organic. The global effects from widespread use of GM crops including RR Alfalfa is largely unknown. I don't even know if my little urban vegetable garden could be safe from RR Alfalfa.

Furthermore, the ramifications and global effects from widespread use of Roundup (glyphosate) are unknown at this time (re EPA).

We already know it has detrimental effects on field workers and will tend to accelerate the evolution of "superweeds."

It seems like one would have to be apathetic, extremely optimistic, or just well-paid to believe Roundup and RR crops are a good thing in the long run (see this "Understanding RR Alfalfa" report).

I believe this carte-blanche approval and widespread acceptance and use of Roundup and resulting monoculture will prove to have horrible effects on biodiversity and people's quality of food and quality of life. Beyond that, it sets a precedent for a continuing dominance of GMO over organic.

2) We have lost a big battle, maybe the last big battle for organic food.
We are seeing fewer and fewer barriers for biotech and herbicide industries to move forward with their plans to implement their experimental techniques on a grand, grand scale. Now the onus is really on us, the organic consumers, to demand transparency in labeling and truth in testing of the foods we buy at markets, grocery stores, and restaurants. 

The onus is also on us, the organic growers, to avoid becoming victims of cross-pollination and contamination from GE seeds and plants grown in fields near ours.

I doubt it’s possible to avoid contamination; there are various ways GM crops can contaminate organic crops (bees travel up to five miles, wind, birds, truck spillage.) The big biotech and herbicide companies even have various ways of spinning the results of contamination to their advantage, hurting the smaller and organic growers. As a result of this USDA move, it will simply be harder and harder to find organic foods we can really trust.

3) Some of our biggest allies capitulated.
Big players that most of us thought were on our side in this battle, particularly Whole Foods Market, finally showed a shift in their approach. Where they once fought hard against the biotech industry, they ultimately looked to compromise, settling for "a seat at the table" and a wimpy attempt to "attach strings" to the governing policies in agriculture as a last resort. (Read more on this at La Vida Locavore.)

It's all looking to me like hypocrisy and lies in a popularity contest: Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” program, aimed at battling obesity and bad eating habits among children; President Obama, USDA, FDA, and Vilsack all seem to favor Monsanto. In September 2001, Vilsack (D-IA) was named Governor of the Year by the world’s largest biotech organization, BIO, an organization with whom Monsanto worked to extend its RR Soybean patent.

All of this makes me even more determined to support my local organic farmers—we are fortunate to have so many here.

Beyond buying from local, known sources, what are my other trustworthy sources and to whom do I write? Organic Consumers Association (OCA). Center for Food Safety (CFS).

More suggestions welcome, but don't tell me to write to Obama.

Big thanks to Edible Aria for this link to non-GMO seeds.

Also big thanks to husband Kurt in helping me research and compose this post.


Caroline said...

I feel the same way. To hear WF and Organic Valley and Stonyfield Farm tell it, once they realized they were going to lose this battle, they decided to push for "coexistance" (as if such a thing were even possible). Now, more than ever, "organic" is merely another corporate marketing slogan. Knowing all this makes my food purchasing decisions easier. I would much rather buy local (and grow local -- in my own backyard) than buy organic.

Kurt said...

Vilsack says "What?"

Or how about this title for a biography on Vilsack -- "Dr. Strangeleaf or: How I Learned to Stop Caring and Love the Biotechs"

Thanks for the shout out, Iris. Of course, it was my pleasure to help.

Iris said...

Caroline--Thanks so much. You're right: it actually makes purchasing easier. Won't be (consciously) buying OV half & half as a starting point...

Bob said...

In any good arguement we need to look at things from the other side. They want to grow more on less area and make more money. I can fully understand their motives. I don't agree with them but they have to be shown alternatives to their approach are they will never quit. You might want to research Malcome Beck. He is proving there is an alternate way to grow more on less area and do it with organic methods. Now if we could just get them to listen to him.

egregious said...

Sometimes I wish I could be a bioengineer. I would invent pests that only feed on GM plants to ensure the purity of organic species...

Iris said...

Bob--Thanks for the Malcolm Beck reference--will check him out. I'm not familiar w/him.

egregious--Sounds like a good plan to me!