The approval of genetically engineered (“GE”) alfalfa has unearthed several intriguing subplots. For starters, the darling of the biotech industry, Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack, in an interesting turn of events and before he caved into political pressure from all sides, was rumored to have considered the possibility of co-existence between GE alfalfa, developed by Monsanto and Forage Genetics (a Land O’Lakes company) and non-GE alfalfa. Co-existence would have meant restricting where and how GE alfalfa is planted to protect organic fields from genetic contamination. After all, GE alfalfa is an open pollinated crop and it’s a perennial which means that contamination is most likely and once contaminated the damage cannot be undone. At a minimum, however, organic farmers were recognized in Vilsack’s December 30, 2010 open letter and the “potential of cross-fertilization to non-GE alfalfa from GE alfalfa” was acknowledged as “a significant concern for farmers who produce for non-GE markets at home and abroad.”
As you can probably guess, the biotech industry, which, as reported by Food and Water Watch, spent more than half a billion dollars ($547 million) lobbying Congress since 1999, was not too happy with the suggestion that organic farmers get serious recognition in USDA’s final version of environmental impact statement. Restrictions on GE crops is not the name of the game they are used to playing (or, paying to play, if lobbying efforts are to be considered). Never mind the fact that co-existence is a myth.
So it’s not surprising that prior to USDA’s decision on January 27, 2011 to deregulate GE alfalfa completely, without limitations, nationwide, that Republican Frank Lucas, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee and senators Pat Roberts and Saxby Chambliss, the Republican leaders on the Senate Agriculture Committee, wrote a letter to Vilsack rebuking his idea of co-existence and stated that the Agriculture Department is, according to them, straying beyond the law by suggesting it can set planting restrictions on genetically modified crops that are deemed safe.
What is surprising is the suggestion that the White House may have done some of its own pressuring as President Obama lives up to his his pro-business quest to remove, in his words, outdated regulations that stifle job creation and make our economy less competitive. According to Tom Philpott of the Grist magazine, veteran agricultural reporters for the Wall Street Journal discussed the Obama administration’s abandonment of a proposal to restrict planting of genetically engineered alfalfa as “the latest rule-making proposal shelved as part of the administration’s review of burdensome’ regulation.” And as Maureen Dowd noted, GE alfalfa also received attention from David Axelrod — who until recently was President Obama’s top political strategist–as he encouraged “everyone to ‘plow forward’ on a plan for genetically produced alfalfa.”
If the White House did in fact pressure the agency, then it appears that USDA was more than happy to oblige because in merely three weeks USDA deregulated not only GE alfalfa, partially deregulated GE sugar beets but it also deregulated ethanol corn.
An additional subplot that has emerged from the GE alfalfa deregulation controversy was an internal debate in the organic movement. Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumer Association questioned whether the organic elites, the likes of Whole Foods, Organic Valley and Stonyfield Farms, surrendered to Monsanto for not opposing mass commercialization of GE alfalfa and considered co-existence as a solution. In a vocal response, the Chairman, President and “CE-Yo” of Stonyfield, Gary Hirshberg, defended the actions of the “elite,” arguing that when it became clear that a complete ban on GE alfalfa was not a route USDA will consider, it was better to stay and negotiate and demand protections against GE alfalfa rather than to walk away empty handed.