When the USDA deregulated GM alfalfa earlier this year, I was among those in arms over what I considered a significant blow to the organic industry. Surely, it would be only a matter of years (some estimates put it at 7) before GM alfalfa cross pollinated with organic crops. Dairy farmers, who largely rely on alfalfa, could say sayonara to truly organic feed; and consumers could bid adieu to organic cheese, milk, yogurt and butter. Among the chorus of cries, I heard "alfalfa’s anchor at the base of the dairy supply chain puts the entire organic food chain in peril," and "a farmer who has been making a concerted effort to steer clear of GMOs in his [alfalfa] fields can now very easily be contaminated." I even wrote a story detailing how the FDA's move would make it increasingly difficult for retailers to ensure their organic dairy did not contain traces of GMOs.
The only problem? We were all basically wrong.
In preparation for Natural Foods Merchandiser's GMO guide (look for it this September), I did a little more research on the issue. GM alfalfa is a threat, but not as great a one as corn, canola or sugar beets. This is because 99 percent of the alfalfa planted never goes to seed. Once the plant flowers, its protein content decreases significantly and it's no longer valuable to farmers who rely on alfalfa for this key nutrient. It also means there's little threat of cross pollination. I verified my assumptions with Chuck Benbrook, chief scientist for the Organic Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing credible, evidence-based science on the health and environmental benefits of organic food.
"For consumers, it's exceedingly implausible that there will be any GM content getting into the milk," he said. "The only risk with GM alfalfa that's worth monitoring, as the seed industry is doing, is to prevent creeping contamination in the seed supply."
That is, if we're going to continue giving attention to GM alfalfa, our energy should be on monitoring the 1 percent of alfalfa that's planted to propagate seeds. Naturally, these plants do flower and there is potential for cross pollinating, though Benbrook points out, the risk is remote. Rules are in place that structure crop distances and planting rotations. The seed industry can guarantee by up to .1 percent (the lowest unit of measure for measuring GM contamination) that seeds are not contaminated.
The Center For Food Safety has filed a lawsuit against the USDA arguing that the agency's approval of the crop is illegal.
After sharing my position with the NewHope360.com audience earlier this year, Bill Freese, CFS science policy analyst, posted a comment suggesting I was leading readers astray. “In trying to ‘clear up GM alfalfa confusion,’ Kelsey Blackwell has unfortunately generated still more,” he wrote. “We have to respectfully disagree with Charles Benbrook’s notion that voluntary seed-industry guidelines are sufficient to prevent contamination of conventional and organic seeds, or keep it below 0.1 percent.” CFS’ website asks for donations to its legal fund to “protect our milk and dairy.” While I dislike the deregulation of alfafa as much as the next organic advocate, I wonder if a) such a call to action isn’t more than a little misleading, and b) our resources wouldn’t be better spent on another issue, such as educating conventional consumers on the health dangers of GM foods or ensuring that GM salmon never make it out of the net.
CF's website asks for donations to their legal fund to "protect our milk and dairy." While I dislike the deregulation of alfafa as much as the next organic advocate, I wonder a) if such a call to action isn't more than a little misleading, and b) if our resources wouldn't be better spent on another issue, such as educating conventional consumers on the dangers of GM foods or ensuring GM salmon never makes it out of the net?
What do you think?