Today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its final Environmental Impact Statement on genetically engineered alfalfa. In June, the Supreme Court had ruled that the USDA could grant Roundup Ready alfalfa preliminary approval, but no seeds could be grown or sold until new deregulation was in place. As part of the deregulation process, the USDA is required to complete a thorough review of the environmental impacts of the GE plant.
The USDA's analysis found that Roundup Ready alfalfa is relatively benign overall. The agency proposed two preferred options for the crop: deregulation or deregulation with geographic restrictions and isolation distances.
The USDA's consideration of agricultural practices—isolation distances and geographic restrictions—is a new approach for the agency and is seemingly meant to help reduce the risk of contamination of non-GE alfalfa plants. The USDA's EIS found that "although the probability is low, GT alfalfa genes could be found in non-GT alfalfa at low levels."
Protecting non-GE crops
Megan Westgate, executive director of the Bellingham, Wash.-based Non-GMO Project, noted that the current EIS rejects the option of a total ban on genetically modified alfalfa, yet she believes the release of this crop inevitably poses a threat to the organic sector. "We’re talking about a perennial crop with a high likelihood of contamination, so that is a real concern," Westgate said. "That said, it is heartening that the USDA is giving serious consideration the challenges of coexistence."
The Washington, D.C.-based Organic Trade Association opposes unconditional deregulation and also has recognized the USDA's positive shift in policy. "Contamination has real economic consequence to organic farms and product manufacturers. GE-contaminated organic crops and products lose their market value, and the costs to prevent contamination and testing costs to verify that crops and products are free of such contamination are all currently borne by the organic industry solely,” said Christine Bushway, OTA’s Executive Director and CEO, in a release. “Our consumers simply will not accept GE-contaminated products. That is, in fact, one of the major reasons that they buy USDA certified organic products.”
In fact, the USDA noted in the EIS that "there is evidence of consumer preference for non-genetically modified foods in the United States" and that "among U.S. main export markets for alfalfa hay and seed, there is evidence of some sensitivity to GE products."
Even so, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack noted in an accompanying press release that the USDA's objective is to find strategies that allow for the coexistence of GE and non-GE crops. And the USDA reported in the EIS that it did not expect Roundup Ready alfalfa to adversely affect plants and animals nor have adverse effects on human health, worker safety, soils, climate or air quality or water and water use.
The OTA has come up with its essential components for coexistence of organic and GE crops, as follows:
- Assignment of liability to the GE patent holder, including a system of compensation for losses due to inadvertent contamination.
- Compensation for perpetual costs of coexistence including testing and commingling prevention throughout the supply chain.
- Preservation of seed stock supply and genetic diversity—critical to food security.
- Comprehensive environmental, public health and socio-economic assessments prior to deregulation.
- Retention of regulatory authority by USDA after deregulation of GE crops through creation of “commercialization permit” that places the burden of contamination prevention on the planters of GE crops versus the current model where the burden is borne solely by non-GE and organic farmers and handlers.
- Labeling of GE crops and product ingredients.
Whether the USDA will adopt these components remains to be seen. The final EIS on RR alfalfa will be available for public review and comment in the Federal Register on December 23, 2010.