Picture of Marcia Ishii

Marcia Ishii

Want organic milk? Stop GE alfalfa!

Please join me today in urging the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to block approval of GE alfalfa. Things are moving quickly in Washington, and frankly, they aren't looking good. Ignoring rulings from three District courts and the Supreme Court, the demands of over 50 members of Congress and concern expressed by his agency’s own scientists (not to mention farmers and the public), Agriculture Secretary Vilsack is apparently refusing to take action to prohibit the planting of Monsanto’s genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa.

I can hear the applause by Monsanto, et al.'s lobbyists now. They've been calling loudly for just this decision: commercial release of GE alfalfa with no restrictions whatsoever.

Seriously, you might ask—is alfalfa really that big a deal? Yes, it turns out.

Superweeds, contamination & milk

Alfalfa is our country’s 4th largest crop, covering 21 million acres of land. GE alfalfa has been engineered to be resistant to (and hence used with) Monsanto’s highly profitable weedkiller, Roundup. Massive planting of other Roundup Ready crops around the country has already led to an epidemic of Roundup-resistant “superweeds.”  Approving GE alfalfa will not only contribute to more resistance (and hence recourse to older even more toxic weedkillers), but will almost certainly lead to widespread contamination of organic and non-GE alfalfa with GE pollen (alfalfa is pollinated by honeybees, which travel many miles).

GE crop contamination will inevitably lead to corruption of non-GE seed and feed supplies and huge economic losses to farmers who provide non-GE milk or meat to U.S. or international markets. Alfalfa is a primary food of dairy cows (and in fact, most other livestock as well). GE contamination of forage and hay would devastate the organic dairy and livestock industry; as consumers, we might soon have to wave goodbye not only to organic sprouts in our salads, but also to organic milk for our kids and even just plain old conventional non-GE milk.

Quick fact : 85% of non-organic milk has DDE (a DDT-breakdown product), 23% dieldrin and 6% 3-hydroxycarbofuran — the first two are known carcinogens and suspected endocrine disruptors, the last a neurotoxin.

Monsanto's patent play

Ironically, USDA’s own environmental impact study admitted that GE contamination of organic and conventionally grown crops presents a very real problem. After receiving 400,000 comments from concerned citizens criticizing the agency’s eagerness to approve GE alfalfa, Vilsack assured us last month that he was “equally committed to finding solutions that support not only the developers and users of biotechnology products, but growers who rely on purity in the non-genetically engineered seed supply." Those assurances are sounding awfully hollow today; it’s not hard to imagine where the pressure to protect sales of yet another Monsanto product came from. In fact, just yesterday three influential Republicans wrote to Vilsack urging approval, without (as Jill Richardson puts it), “all of these namby-pamby restrictions on where it can be grown.”

The irony is that RoundupReady alfalfa isn't even necessary for farmers. The perennial crop has few serious weed problems and eliminating all "extra" grasses in a field in order to provide "clear alfalfa" is actually unhealthy for your cows (even if it enables one to maximize production over the short term, until one's cows give out—an understandable if ultimately unsustainable strategy). But Roundup Ready alfalfa is necessary for Monsanto, which is anxious to squeeze as much profit from its flagship weedkiller as possible before its patent protections expire in 2014.

Take Action » PANNA joins with National Organic Coalition, Center for Food Safety, Food & Water Watch and Food Democracy Now! in rejecting the approval of GE alfalfa. We urge a strict moratorium on planting GE alfalfa, until such time as: 1) independent evaluations of the public health, environmental and economic impacts of GE alfalfa are completed and demonstrate no harm; 2) regulations are put into place to prevent and monitor genetic contamination; and 3) a mechanism and fund is established (and paid for by GE alfalfa patent-holders) to compensate farmers and others in the food supply chain for any losses resulting from GE contamination.

With USDA likely to make its decision by next week, there’s no time to waste. 

Picture of Marcia Ishii

Marcia Ishii

Marcia Ishii is director of PAN’s Grassroots Science Program and a Senior Scientist with a background in insect ecology and pest management. Her campaign work focuses on supporting and strengthening agroecology movements and policies in the U.S. and globally, in addition to challenging corporate control of our food and seed systems. Follow @MarciaIshii

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