By Taylor Reid, Beginning Farmers’ Founder and Administrator.
Organic and sustainable food and farming advocates have been infuriated by USDA’s decision to deregulate genetically modified alfalfa. Anger over the power and purpose of giant corporations like Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta, which have rapidly transformed themselves from agricultural chemical companies into plant patent holders, and the worlds largest seed companies is nothing new. Nor are critiques of their powerful connections within USDA and other government agencies. But indications were that Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack would take a ‘middle of the road approach’ to alfalfa deregulation after his highly public discussions about ‘coexistence’ between organics and GMO’s. Surprise over his recent decision to fully deregulate Roundup Ready Alfalfa after his public appeals for moderation and what seemed to be a recognition of the legitimacy of organic production has certainly fueled the anger. But at its core, the ire is clearly focused on the precedent the Secretary’s decision seems to set for agricultural policy with regard to genetically modified crops. Alfalfa is the first widely planted genetically modified perennial crop to receive approval, and will undoubtedly increase both the presence of GMO’s in the food supply (since alfalfa is commonly used as animal feed), and the threat of contamination to organic products and other non-gmo crops (http://www.theatlanticwire.com/opinions/view/opinion/Farmers-Get-Go-Ahead-to-Plant-Genetically-Modified-Alfalfa-6762).
The hundreds of thousands of comments opposing de-regulation of alfalfa submitted to the President, USDA, and APHIS suggest a high level of public concern over the issue, and the level of vitriol it has raised within the organic and sustainable food and farm activist community are unprecedented in my experience. The furor has truly reached a fever pitch in blogs, listservs, and discussion groups. So much so that it has spilled over from the usual suspects (biotech corporations and government) into the laps of traditional organic proponents – some of the largest corporations that make and sell organic products. Calls for boycotts of companies such as Whole Foods and Stonyfield Farm are based on claims that they were complicit in allowing the alfalfa decision to take place. This argument centers around an apparent embrace by these companies of Vilsack’s ‘coexistance’ philosophy, and their advocacy for USDA’s middle ground ‘conditional regulation’ option which would have established rules intended to minimize contamination while still allowing GE alfalfa to be planted.
To me, a more compelling question than the role that organic product companies’ positions played in retrospect, is why Vilsack abandoned the ‘conditional regulation’/'coexistence’ option he seemed to be promoting and was widely expected to adopt over full deregulation. My own speculation is that this was a political calculation on the part of the Secretary, who has a long history of support for genetic engineering of crops. In a recent public forum, several Republican House Agriculture Committee Members not only strongly criticized the Secretary for considering ‘partial de-regulation’ but also questioned his authority enact such a policy. It seems likely to me that Vilsack’s decision on alfalfa may have been affected by the strong opinions expressed by those who will hold his purse strings for the next two years at least, a period that will include debate on the content of the next Farm Bill. Whether or not Vilsack caved to this pressure I cannot be sure. What I am sure of is that his decision is likely to have long term ramifications on the structure of American agriculture, the substance of it’s products, and the opinions and actions of the growing number of advocates for organic and sustainable agriculture.
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