USDA has released the final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on Roundup Ready alfalfa with two preferred options for moving forward: 1) deregulate (allow the commercial sale and planting of) genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa completely, or 2) deregulate GE alfalfa with restrictions on planting (e.g., isolation distances for seed production).
USDA says it will announce its final decision at the end of January. You can view the EIS here.
The biotech industry bemoans the “delay” in allowing sales of GE alfalfa seed. Yet, two court decisions and 200,000 public comments later, and the organic community still does not have meaningful answers to the most important questions, especially regarding liability.
Seed is the first and most vital resource in the production chain. The integrity of seed is therefore paramount to the success of organic farmers.
OSA believes the integrity of organic seed requires genetics free of transgenic material. Cross-pollination (and other routes of contamination) between Roundup Ready and organic and non-GE alfalfa threatens to increase production costs, eliminate markets for organic alfalfa seed producers, and harm the credibility of the organic label. Organic farmers and seed producers need seed that is free of transgenic material to meet USDA’s national organic standards, which require seed absent GE traits.
In the event contamination occurs, organic seed producers need those who own, promote, and profit from GE seed technologies to be held responsible for the irreparable damage contamination causes. The organic seed industry in particular experiences irreparable harm beyond economic damage of a single crop in the event contamination occurs, as contamination harms the reputation of the organic seed industry. Organic farmers and seed producers also need the organic label to remain credible, as consumers reasonably assume organic means GE-free.
Costs associated with contamination – testing for contamination, reimbursement for eradicating unwanted genetically engineered material from seed stock, lost organic premiums, and other costs – cannot continue to be borne by the organic and non-GE farming community. “Co-existence” has not been a reality in other crops. We do not believe avoiding contamination is possible in alfalfa, a perennial, insect-pollinated crop.
The EIS erroneously concludes that consumers of organic food are likely unconcerned by contamination of organic products. We know this is not true. Many organic farmers and businesses know their customers well, and they know these customers expect their products to be free of GE traits. Any and all presence of such traits will cause their customers to lose confidence in their products. In some instances, just the threat of contamination has cost organic alfalfa seed producers their customers.
The EIS dismisses the reality that consumers view organic products as GE-free and demand zero tolerance for GE material. Indeed, the organic community fought hard for the complete exclusion of GE products in certified organic products when the NOP was first created. U.S. District Judge Breyer understood that contamination of organic products by GE alfalfa removes choice from organic farmers and consumers alike: to “farmers and consumers organic means not genetically engineered, even if the farmer did not intend for his crop to be so engineered.” And, earlier this year, many in Congress also agreed that consumers expect organic products to be free of GE contamination.
When a product threatens to impact not just a single neighboring crop, but the integrity and viability of a farm and industry label, what recourse do those not choosing this technology have when seed genetics, markets, and reputation are harmed? Courts are not a policy solution. But, as OSA board member Fred Kirschenmann of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture shared in a recent meeting with Secretary Vilsack, when the minority is harmed, the legal system has to step in. This is an appropriate role for the judicial system, yet all parties want to avoid the courts.
The importance of alfalfa to the growing demand of organic dairy and other food products, and its importance as a rotation crop in ecological farming systems, makes this EIS and upcoming regulatory decision of utmost importance to the future of organic. And it will set a precedent for future regulatory decisions that impact the diversity, integrity, and security of our organic and non-GE seed stock.
Although both the organic and biotechnology industries acknowledge that transgenic material is moving into fields and markets where it is not allowed or wanted, little has been done to address the problem through regulatory processes and enforcement.
Contamination prevention strategies must take seriously the principles of diversity, fairness, liability, precaution, sustainability, and transparency, as outlined by the National Organic Coalition. Only then will we make progress toward protecting the integrity of organic seed and feed sources. The opportunity is clear, and it can begin — as so many of our food sources begin — with alfalfa.
Note about photo: The EIS says farmers may be required to harvest their alfalfa hay at 10% bloom to avoid greater opportunity for cross-pollination. The alfalfa stand in this picture was harvested at full bloom because consistent rains that summer made it impossible to harvest sooner. Farmers cannot control weather, and they cannot control wind, pollen, and other modes of contamination either.