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Big Win for Biotech: USDA Deregulates Monsanto Alfalfa

Monday, 07 February 2011 08:17 By Mike Ludwig, t r u t h o u t | Report | name.

Big Win for Biotech: USDA Deregulates Monsanto Alfalfa
Roundup Ready alfalfa sprouts were fully deregulated by the USDA on January 27. (Photo: jessicareeder)

After nearly five years of legal and regulatory battles, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has fully deregulated Monsanto's Roundup Ready alfalfa that is genetically modified (GM) to be resistant to Roundup herbicide.

The decision squashed a proposed compromise between the biotech industry and its opponents that would have placed geographic restrictions on Roundup Ready alfalfa to prevent organic and traditional alfalfa from being contaminated by herbicide sprays and transgenes spread by cross-pollination and other factors.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that Roundup Ready alfalfa would be fully deregulated on January 27, just one week after he testified before the House Committee on Agriculture, where committee members pressed Vilsack to fully deregulate Roundup Ready alfalfa and reject the proposal to geographically isolate it from traditional alfalfa.

"I am pleased that USDA used sound science and respected the limit of its statutory authority to make this decision," said committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Oklahoma) after learning that Roundup Ready alfalfa would be fully deregulated.

Monsanto was one of the top contributors to Lucas's campaign committee in 2010. A political action committee and individuals associated with Monsanto donated $11,000 to his campaign last year, and Lucas has received $1,247,844 from the agribusiness industry during his political career, according to watchdog site www.opensecrets.org

Lucas was elected chairman of the Agriculture Committee in December.

Opponents of biotech crops disagree with Lucas and claim the USDA did not use sound science to evaluate the potential impacts of GM alfalfa and, instead, catered to the interests of private industry.

"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," said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director for the Center for Food Safety (CFS).

A CFS spokesperson told Truthout that the CFS is currently planning another legal challenge to Roundup Ready alfalfa.

The USDA first approved Roundup Ready alfalfa in 2005, but in 2007, a federal court in California placed a temporary ban on the alfalfa after the CFS and a coalition of farmers and environmental groups sued the USDA over concerns that the alfalfa could threaten non-GM alfalfa crops.

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The farmers and advocates argued that the Roundup Ready alfalfa could cross-pollinate with organic and traditional alfalfa and transmit Monsanto transgenes to the non-GM crops.

Roundup Ready alfalfa will also increase the use of the controversial  glyphosate-based herbicide Roundup. Some farmers fear that the herbicide, which is already sprayed on a majority of the corn and soy grown in the US, could drift onto organic alfalfa fields while promoting the growth of herbicide-resistant "super weeds."

Certain types of weeds have developed a resistance to glyphosate herbicides like Roundup because of their widespread use on GM crops, and last autumn, Monsanto gave farmers rebates to buy additional herbicides to fight the growing weed problem across the country.

Monsanto and its biotech allies helped the USDA defend against the CFS lawsuit, and the case landed in the US Supreme Court last year. The Supreme Court struck down the ban in June and ordered the USDA to reconsider the environmental impacts of Roundup Ready alfalfa before allowing it back in the fields.

The USDA developed a new Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)  last year and held a public stakeholder's meeting on December 20 with members of the organic foods and biotech industries to determine how GM alfalfa could "coexist" with traditional and organic alfalfa.

After considering comments from both sides, the USDA proposed to either deregulate the transgenic crop completely or impose geographic restrictions on GM alfalfa that would isolate the crop - along with its transgenes and Roundup herbicide - from traditional and organic alfalfa crops.

Despite comments and testimony from GM opponents and concerned farmers, the EIS prepared by the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) concluded that Roundup Ready alfalfa did not pose any more of a "plant pest" risk than ordinary alfalfa.

APHIS also stated that, if Roundup and other glyphosate-based herbicides were used as directed by the Environmental Protection Agency, then the increased use of herbicide on Roundup Ready alfalfa would not threaten non-GM alfalfa fields.

The APHIS assessment gave the USDA the green light to legalize Roundup Ready alfalfa without restrictions, but the CFS claims the APHIS assessment is "sloppy" and based on research and information provided by big agribusiness.

In a letter to Vilsack, CFS science policy analyst Bill Freese outlined several instances in which APHIS based its EIS on outdated data and figures provided by "entities with financial ties to the biotechnology industry."

Freese points out that APHIS referenced figures on cross-pollination and contamination provided by Forage Genetics, a private firm that makes Roundup Ready alfalfa seeds for Monsanto. Freese also claims that APHIS relied on "misleading, obsolete data" on herbicide use and herbicide-resistant weeds that obscure serious problems like "super weeds" that have recently developed in Roundup Ready crop systems.

Mike Ludwig

Mike Ludwig is a Truthout Fellow.

Last modified on Monday, 07 February 2011 08:31