Jan 31, 2011
No coexistence restrictions on GM alfalfa
USA: Cultivation of genetically modified alfalfa fully deregulated
Last Thursday, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved the cultivation of GM alfalfa without imposing any restrictions designed to ensure coexistence with conventional and organic alfalfa farming. Prior to the decision, US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had for the first time considered imposing coexistence restrictions. Organic farming associations have announced that they will be appealing against the decision.
US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack: “After conducting a thorough and transparent examination of alfalfa through a multi-alternative environmental impact statement (EIS) and several public comment opportunities, the USDA has determined that genetically modified alfalfa is as safe as traditionally bred alfalfa.”
In 2007, a US court banned cultivation of the GM alfalfa produced by Monsanto, which had been approved in 2005, saying that the potential environmental risks and economic consequences had not been sufficiently well researched. The subsequent court battles triggered public discussions about the cultivation of GM crops – something that had not been particularly common in the USA. This led US Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack to submit a new environmental impact assessment in December, as well as proposing for the first time cultivation restrictions on GM plants designed to protect conventional and organic fields against contamination with GM alfalfa. This move attracted criticism from agricultural experts among the Republicans in the House of Representatives and Senate, who called on him to stick to scientific criteria when regulating plant genetic engineering.
In the end, the US government rejected the plans for coexistence measures and decided on full deregulation. In doing so, it failed to respond to the central demand of organic farmers and traders. However, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack did announce various measures intended to address the interests of stakeholders and to keep the channels of communication open. Among other things, two advisory committees are to be set up: an Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture, and a National Genetic Resources Advisory Committee. The existing models of gene flow in alfalfa are to be refined and voluntary control mechanisms within the industry are to be supplemented by external audits. In addition, the USDA intends to initiate research into the production and genetic integrity of alfalfa seeds and into methods for detecting GM alfalfa.
Organic farmers fear sales losses
Christine Bushway of the Organic Trade Association explained that many of her members were shocked that the GM alfalfa had been approved without any restrictions. She recognised that Agriculture Secretary Vilsack had considered the issue of coexistence, but said that the final decision represented a risk to many organic farmers. Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety, was also disappointed. He announced that his organisation would be contesting the approval in court to prevent GM alfalfa being sown this spring.
Organic farming associations had fought hard for the cultivation of GM alfalfa to be permitted only under strict coexistence conditions, including sufficient separation distances between GM and conventional and organic fields. They fear that the GM seeds will enter their fields via pollen and contaminate their harvests. If, as a result, they are no longer able to sell their alfalfa as an organic product, they will suffer heavy financial losses. In the USA, many producers of organic food will not accept raw ingredients in which traces of Genetically Modified Organism (GMO)s can be detected, even if this would not affect the product’s organic status under current legislation. The USDA’s regulations for organic farming exclude the use of GM seed, but if low levels of GMOs enter the harvest inadvertently through pollen dispersal and outcrossing, the product can still be marketed as organic.
Alfalfa for hay production is grown on eight million hectares in the USA. It is the fourth biggest crop in the country in terms of area. Around 100,000 hectares are used to grow organic alfalfa. Outcrossing plays only a minor role in the production of alfalfa hay because the farmers harvest the fields before flowering starts and before the pollen is released. By contrast, with crops grown for seed production, it is possible for GM alfalfa to outcross to conventional varieties. The coexistence conditions originally considered for the cultivation of GM alfalfa therefore related primarily to seed production.