The genetically engineered technology is licensed by Monsanto to the seed maker Forage Genetics International, which is owned by Land-O-Lakes.
Announcing the decision Thursday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, "After conducting a thorough and transparent examination of alfalfa through a multi-alternative environmental impact statement and several public comment opportunities, the Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has determined that Roundup Ready alfalfa is as safe as traditionally bred alfalfa."
The expected impact of the decision is far reaching, particularly to organic farmers. Christine Bushway, executive director and CEO of the Organic Trade Association, said the decision threatens the $26.6 billion a year organic food industry that employs tens of thousands of people around the country, and helps keep at least 14,540 family farms in business. Except for 2009, the organic industry has experienced double digit growth annually for over a decade.
"This creates a perplexing situation when the market calls for a supply of crops free of genetic engineering," Bushway said. "The organic standards prohibit the use of genetic engineering, and consumers will not tolerate the accidental presence of genetic engineered materials in organic products yet GE crops continue to proliferate unchecked."
Half-mown alfalfa field in Utah (Photo by Arby Reed)
"Preserving market and farmer choice and agricultural diversity are central to USDA's mission and the future of rural American livelihoods. This failure to do so will make it increasingly difficult to meet the growing demand for U.S. organic crops," said Bushway, whose association represents more than 4,500 certified organic operations in the United States, from single operator growers to Fortune 250 companies.
Center for Food Safety Executive Director Andrew Kimbrell said his organization will reactivate its lawsuit against the USDA's approval of GE alfalfa. The case has been on hold while the USDA completed its court-ordered Final Environmental Impact Statement, FEIS.
Over 250,000 public comments were received during the FEIS process, the vast majority opposing deregulation.
"We're disappointed with USDA's decision and we will be back in court representing the interest of farmers, preservation of the environment, and consumer choice," said Kimbrell. "USDA has become a rogue agency in its regulation of biotech crops and its decision to appease the few companies who seek to benefit from this technology comes despite increasing evidence that GE alfalfa will threaten the rights of farmers and consumers, as well as damage the environment."
Kimbrell points to USDA projections in the FEIS showing that substantial adoption of Roundup Ready alfalfa would trigger large increases in herbicide use of up to 23 million pounds per year.
Citing over 200 past contamination episodes that have cost farmers hundreds of millions of dollars in lost sales, the Center for Food Safety is demanding that liability for financial losses incurred by farmers due to transgenic contamination be assigned to the crop developers. The USDA must take a more active oversight role to ensure that any stewardship plans are properly implemented and enforced, Kimbrell says.
Unrestricted commercialization of genetically engineered crops - 86 percent of the country's corn and 93 percent of soybeans - has resulted in widespread unlabeled presence of GE materials in mainstream food products unrecognized by the average consumer.
According to California's Department of Food and Agriculture, at least 70 percent of processed foods in American supermarkets now contain genetically engineered ingredients.
The USDA organic program is the only federal food label that prohibits the use of genetically engineered crops or materials. Under current USDA policy, the organic sector bears the burden created by unchecked release of genetically engineered crops.
"All of the alfalfa production stakeholders involved in this issue have stressed their willingness to work together to find solutions," said Vilsack. "We greatly appreciate and value the work they've done so far and will continue to provide support to the wide variety of sectors that make American agriculture successful."
While USDA, for the first time, acknowledged organic agriculture as a stakeholder in decisions around the release of GE crops, Bushway says it is a small step for organic alongside giant steps towards accelerated decisions to deregulate many new GE crops awaiting review at USDA.
She said the organic industry and the loyal consumers of organic products will continue to resist this unrestricted commercialization of GE crops being brought to market by the well-funded and influential biotech industry.
Calling the USDA's decision "outrageous and wrong," the nonprofit Food & Water Watch is appealing to President Barack Obama to reverse the approval GE alfalfa.
Food & Water Watch Outreach Director Sarah Alexander said, "The agency did no real assessment of the harm that GE alfalfa could do, and caved to pressure from big agribusiness to approve this genetically engineered crop before the spring planting season."
"President Obama is the last line of defense, and can stop the widespread planting of Monsanto's GE alfalfa," she said in an appeal to the public to "demand President Obama stop this disastrous approval."
The nonprofit Organic Consumers Association is turning to voters to fight the proliferation of Monsanto's genetically engineered crops.
The OCA is seeking 435 volunteers, one for each U.S. Congressional District, to coordinate a drive to gather 2,300 petition signatures in each district on its Truth-in-Labeling petition to "mobilize 1,000,000 people against Monsanto."
"This is how we're going to build the grassroots power we need to recapture our right to know what's in our food," the association says. The campaign aims to convince grocery stores to label foods that contain genetically modified organisms, and for local, state and federal laws that would make GMO-labels mandatory.
So far, two Congressional districts have gotten their quota of signatures - Colorado's 2nd district covering the Denver suburbs, Boulder, Vail, Grand Lake and Idaho Springs, and North Carolina's 11th district covering Western North Carolina and Asheville.
Instead of allowing unregulated planting of GE alfalfa, the USDA could have maintained regulatory status over the perennial livestock forage crop.
Or the agency could have chosen to ban the planting of GE alfalfa seeds in seed-growing regions to limit the contamination of alfalfa seed stock by foreign DNA from Monsanto's crop. Alfalfa is pollinated by bees and other insects and has a pollination radius of five miles.
Vilsack also announced that the USDA will establish in Idaho a second germ plasm and seed center for alfalfa in an attempt to maintain GE-free strains of alfalfa. The agency currently operates such a facility in Prosser, Washington.
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