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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

GMO Hay Threatens Organic Dairy Farmers?


Air Date: Week of

A protracted legal battle has surrounded the release of Monsanto’s genetically engineered alfalfa for the past five years. The U.S. Department of Agricuture recently gave farmers the go-ahead to plant the seeds, which worries some organic farmers who also grow alfalfa. Living on Earth’s Jessica Ilyse Smith reports on a new lawsuit filed against the makers of the seed.


GELLERMAN: Hay is for horses - but it’s also for cows, especially dairy cows. And soon they could be munching on hay from a different seed: genetically engineered alfalfa. It’s called Roundup Ready alfalfa and its maker, Monsanto, says it’s just like any other hay seed except that it’s resistant to their herbicide, Roundup, which kills weeds in alfalfa fields.

But organic farmers and those who choose organic dairy products fear the new seed could kill the organic dairy industry. And for the past four years, they’ve been waging a legal battle all the way up to the Supreme Court to prevent the seeds from being sown. Living on Earth’s Jessica Ilyse Smith brings us up to date.

SMITH: Last year the Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. Department of Agriculture should decide the fate of Roundup Ready Alfalfa. And this January, the USDA made the unexpected decision to give the go-ahead to Monsanto to sell its seeds, and for farmers to plant them without restrictions.

This blindsided many organic farmers and consumer advocates. Just a month earlier, the agency brought together organic farmers and food distributors, biotech corporations and crop exporters to talk about a coexistence plan - a plan of how Roundup Ready Alfalfa could be grown with everyone’s interests in mind. Mark McCaslin was at this meeting. His company, Forage Genetics, developed the genetically engineered alfalfa with Monsanto.

Alfalfa, or hay, is the 4th largest crop in the U.S. in both acreage and value. (Photo: Timo Newton-Syms Flickr Creative Commons)

MCCASLIN: There was quite a bit of agreement in terms of what a coexistence platform would look like.

SMITH: The stakeholders agreed it would be important for farmers to follow certain restrictions, like buffer distances to protect organic crops from contamination. But there wasn’t an agreement on how those restrictions would come about.

MCCASLIN: The area of disagreement was really the two groups generally had a different view of the role of government in imposing restrictions.

SMITH: McCaslin and others from the biotech world say that industry can self-regulate without government rules. He believes farmers can manage themselves, making a government-mandated coexistence plan redundant.

KIMBRELL: I think that’s hooey.

SMITH: George Kimbrell is an attorney with the Center for Food Safety. His organization and other opponents of genetically engineered alfalfa don’t trust the industry to self-regulate. In March, the center brought a lawsuit challenging the USDA’s decision to fast-track Roundup Ready Alfalfa in time for this year’s growing season. In effect, that sidelined the coexistence plan. Kimbrell says without government oversight, protections for non-GE farmers will fall through the cracks.

KIMBRELL: We have a number of cautionary tales from other parts of our economy in which industry has claimed that self-regulation is sufficient. You need look no further than Wall Street, or the Gulf Oil Spill, or the housing market collapse to realize that we need federal oversight - particularly when you have industry lobbying.

SMITH: Before the USDA made its decision, it reviewed Roundup Ready alfalfa’s impacts on the environment and farmers. George Kimbrell says the government ignored its own findings.

KIMBRELL: USDA’s own analysis shows that contamination will happen. They just wash their hands of it and put that entire burden on the organic or the non-GE farmer. And we think that decision was unlawful.

SMITH: Alfalfa is a staple in U.S. dairy production, and Kimbrell says the genetically modified version of the crop is a threat to the very heart of the organic industry. The USDA requires organic dairy cows be fed only organic feed. Albert Straus is an organic dairy farmer in Northern California. He doesn’t believe that the biotech industry can prevent GE seeds from spreading.

STRAUS: Alfalfa is one of the main feeds that we use on organic dairy, and if it starts getting contaminated, it’s going to have a huge impact on our business and our viability. I think our government has put my business at risk, and I’m very concerned.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack. (Photo: Wikipedia Creative Commons)

SMITH: Straus and other farmers want to ensure they’ll always have an untainted supply of organic alfalfa. But bees pollinate alfalfa, and Straus is worried they’ll carry GE pollen into his field. Like many consumers, he doesn’t want genetically engineered crops in the food supply.

STRAUS: I have strong beliefs that they don’t know what effects they have on animals or people. So I have a strong personal feeling that these are not needed.

SMITH: But regardless of safety arguments, the round, blue and green USDA organic labels offer consumers assurance that they’re buying GE-free food. Miles McEvoy heads the USDA’s National Organic Program. And as to whether the program will one day allow biotech crops…

MCEVOY: Allowing them - that will never happen.

SMITH: McEvoy says that GE-free is at the heart of these standards. But he says the organic farmers are worrying too much about contamination.

MCEVOY: There have been some deregulated GE crops in production for a number of years, primarily corn and soybeans. And the organic producers have managed to live with the present. And so I would imagine that that’s going to be the same outcome for the deregulation of GE alfalfa - is, growers will have to take measures to avoid contamination and that will, for the most part, protect organic growers and consumers from the presence of GE crops.

SMITH: In addition to creating buffer zones between GE and non-GE fields, another measure to protect organic alfalfa is staggering farmers’ harvests. Most alfalfa in the U.S. is grown for hay, and plants are harvested before they produce seeds. Daniel Putnam is an alfalfa expert with the University of California, Davis. He’s more concerned that weeds will develop resistance to the Roundup herbicide, also known as glyphosate.

PUTNAM: That is, if you spray one type of herbicide that does not normally kill a particular weed, that weed will be favored in a cropping system. We’ve seen that already with our experiments with Roundup Ready alfalfa - that some weeds that aren’t really well controlled by glyphosate are favored in that system. And so that’s something that we need to watch for.

SMITH: Though the Center for Food Safety has filed a new case against the USDA for its GE crop approval, some regions of the U.S. are not waiting around for the ruling. Alfalfa is California’s largest crop by area, with a value of nearly one billion dollars. So agricultural hubs, like southern California’s Imperial Valley, are not taking chances, says Daniel Putnam from U.C. Davis.

PUTNAM: I just returned from a meeting in El Centro, California, where the growers have elected to assure that there were adequate distances that would keep the gene from the Imperial Valley. Currently, there will be no Roundup Ready grown in the Imperial Valley. And that was by agreement between the farmers and the seed companies.

SMITH: Self-imposed restrictions like this work especially well if an entire region decides together. Organic advocates and consumer protection groups say that where it could get tricky is if farmers who use the GE seeds surround an organic farmer. Miles McEvoy from the USDA says that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is committed to pleasing all parties.

MCEVOY: He recognizes the economic possibilities of the organic market and wants to support the continued growth of that, as well as the growth of biotechnology because he sees that as a very thriving part of American agriculture. So it’s certainly still part of his agenda, in terms of getting the organic, conventional, and GE communities to talk together to work out a way to how all those different sectors can thrive.

SMITH: The Center for Food Safety’s case was filed in Federal Court just as the contentious seeds were being planted in fields across the U.S. And though farmers call alfalfa "the queen of the animal forages,” since Monsanto's GE alfalfa is spending so much time in the legal system, perhaps it should be renamed "the queen of the courts.” For Living on Earth, I’m Jessica Ilyse Smith.



Listen to Jessica Ilyse Smith's previous alfalfa coverage.

Read the Center for Food Safety’s complain against GE alfalfa to the U.S. district court.

Visit the Center for Food Safety’s website

Read the USDA’s Q+A about why they deregulated Roundup Ready Alfalfa

Visit Monsanto’s Roundup Ready Alfalfa page


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