Have you ever wondered just how many GMOs are out there? If not, you might be surprised to learn that 86% of corn and 93% of soybeans grown in the United States is genetically modified. In fact, according to California’s Department of Food and Agriculture, 70% of processed foods in American supermarkets now contain genetically engineered (GE) ingredients.
You might also be surprised to learn that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has decided to allow the unrestricted use of another GE crop: alfalfa.
What is alfalfa, and what is it used for?
Alfalfa is a perennial legume that is widely grown throughout the United States. Although it can be used in human food (i.e.: alfalfa sprouts), its widely used as animal feed, particularly for dairy cows.
GE alfalfa, which is more commonly known as Roundup Ready alfalfa, is distinctive in that it has been genetically engineered to withstand direct application of glyphosate-based herbicides (Roundup) to kill nearby weeds.
How is alfalfa grown, and what problems does this create?
The growth of alfalfa depends on pollination. Typically, bees pollinate alfalfa plants by landing on alfalfa flowers, collecting pollen, and depositing it on other alfalfa plants.
Inherent in this process is the risk of cross-pollination between GE and non-GE alfalfa, since the pollinating bees cannot discriminate between GE alfalfa and its non-GE counterpart and may transfer GE alfalfa pollen to non-GE alfalfa plants. When such cross-pollination occurs, non-GE alfalfa plants are contaminated. Such contamination has serious environmental and economic costs. For example, it creates conditions under which weeds become resistant to pesticides, and more pesticides are needed to control weed growth. Moreover, it negatively impacts organic and non-GE producers, who can no longer sell their products as organic or non-GE once they have been contaminated.
What prompted legal debate about GE alfalfa?
In 2004, USDA received a petition from Monsanto and Forage Genetic International to deregulate GE alfalfa (in other words, make it available for widespread commercial use without government oversight or control). At that time, USDA also released an Environmental Assessment for public comment. In 2005, the USDA declared that genetically engineered alfalfa would have no significant impact on the environment and deregulated it.
In 2006, the Center for Food Safety (CFS) along with a group of non-profit organizations and alfalfa farmers filed a lawsuit in the Northern District of California, arguing that USDA had violated the U.S. law requiring an environmental impact statement (EIS) before deregulating a crop. (An EIS is a thorough analysis of the potential environmental, health, and economic impacts of a federal decision).Moreover, the lawsuit requested that the court suspend deregulation until such an assessment had been completed.
In 2007, the court ruled that USDA had violated the law by deregulating GE alfalfa before conducting a complete EIS, and issued a preliminary injunction halting the sale of GE alfalfa seed until an EIS had been completed. These decisions were followed by a similar one in which the court called on USDA to ban any further planting of the GE seed until the EIS was conducted.
What did USDA’s EIS reveal about the environmental impact of GE alfalfa?
USDA released a draft EIS on the potential impacts of deregulating genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa in December 2009, and a final version in December 2010. The EIS revealed that:*
• Genetically engineered alfalfa will increase the use of glyphosate
• Plants exposed to glyphosate “might experience impaired germination or growth characteristics”
• If GE alfalfa is deregulated, there is risk of contamination of non-GE crops
• There is no information available on the long-term allergenicity and toxicity impact of GE alfalfa on humans and animals
The EIS outlined three potential courses of action around GE alfalfa: maintaining current regulation; partial deregulation, in which GE alfalfa would be subject to “geographic restrictions and isolation distances”; and complete deregulation.
Where does the policy debate over GE alfalfa stand now?
EPA published a notice that the final EIS on GE alfalfa was available for public review in the Federal Register in December 2010, initiating the start of a 30-day review period during which the public could submit comments on it. The review period closed on January 24, 2011, and USDA announced on January 27, 2011 that it would authorize the unrestricted commercial cultivation of genetically modified alfalfa.
What can you do to avoid GE alfalfa?
The easiest way to avoid GE alfalfa is to buy organic. By law, organic cows are required to be fed 100% organic feed. This minimizes the risk GE alfalfa being present in their bodies. At the same time, it reduces your risk of exposure to GE alfalfa through your consumption of meat and dairy products.
What is the organic industry doing to protect consumers’ right to choose products free of genetic engineering?
The organic industry is committed to protecting consumers’ freedom to choose products made without GMOs. That is why OTA is recommending that policy decisions regarding GE regulation should shift the costs related to inadvertent contamination from organic farmers to the patent holders of the GE crops, protect the organic seed supply, and assure implementation of requirements to avoid contamination in the first place. OTA also recommends that such policy decisions require thorough environmental, public health and socio-economic assessments and the labeling of GE crops and product ingredients, among other things, to ensure that consumers continue to have the choice to avoid GE products in the marketplace.