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POLICY & REGULATION: Genetically engineered alfalfa isnít necessary



                                  PART 1


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TITLE:   GENETICALLY ENGINEERED ALFALFA ISN?T NECESSARY

SOURCE:  The Washington Post, USA

AUTHOR:  Barbara Damrosch

URL:     http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/02/16/AR2011021603597.html

DATE:    16.02.2011

SUMMARY: "But here?s the main point about GMOs: You can?t recall them the way you can a car or a plastic toy. They?re out there for good. And no one knows what their full impact will be. [...] Faced with pollution, we?ve cleaned up much of America?s air and water. But a new kind of pollution is being forced on us with no widespread agreement on its efficacy or consensus on its safety. Twenty years ago it wasn?t there; now it affects the majority of food produced in this country, without our consent. We?ve said ?No,? but is anybody listening?"

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GENETICALLY ENGINEERED ALFALFA ISN?T NECESSARY

Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of ?The Garden Primer.?

Alfalfa?s roots go deep in the soil and deep in history. Prized by the ancient Persians, this high-protein ?Queen of Forages? is still treasured. It is the fourth-largest crop grown in the United States, primarily for feeding cattle. And it is the latest one to fall to the Empire of Monsanto.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack?s recent decision to deregulate the use of Monsanto?s Roundup Ready Alfalfa (RRA) has alarmed many in the farming community, and beyond, who expected better from this administration. I suppose the kindest thing you could say about this genetically engineered seed - developed to allow the plant to withstand applications of Roundup herbicide - is that it?s unnecessary.

Alfalfa competes well with weeds in a well-managed system. But when RRA is grown, weeds will develop resistance to Roundup, as they have with the other crops that carry the Roundup Ready gene, such as corn, soybeans and cottons (sugar beets are next). This resistance could lead to the introduction of yet more powerful transgenic remedies that, in turn, would fail.

Polling has shown that most Americans dislike the idea of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) being introduced into the food supply, which is why the agricultural lobby blocks the labeling of products containing them. And no one fears the galloping GMO trend more than farmers - organic or otherwise - who bank on selling GMO-free alfalfa hay, or meat from animals not tainted by eating RRA.

Many farmers now grow or source seed abroad to avoid cross-pollination from Monsanto crops. In seed production, alfalfa is pollinated by far-ranging bees, which makes it especially vulnerable to such biological trespass.

It is possible that, in time, forces will prevail that are not motivated by profit, and will rethink the whole GMO approach to food. It may become clear that none of it works very well, that it presents more problems than it purports to solve, and that agricultural science might be put to better use.

But here?s the main point about GMOs: You can?t recall them the way you can a car or a plastic toy. They?re out there for good. And no one knows what their full impact will be.

I recently came across a little book called ?DDT - Killer of Killers,? written in 1946 by two chemical engineering professors named O.T. Zimmerman and Irvin Lavine. It?s easy to poke fun at the pictures of housewives spraying DDT all over their kitchens, and at the authors? giddy assurances of that poison?s worth, lacking any knowledge of its unintended consequences.

We?d like to think we?ve learned how to correct such mistakes, and we have. Faced with pollution, we?ve cleaned up much of America?s air and water. But a new kind of pollution is being forced on us with no widespread agreement on its efficacy or consensus on its safety. Twenty years ago it wasn?t there; now it affects the majority of food produced in this country, without our consent. We?ve said ?No,? but is anybody listening?



                                  PART 2

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TITLE:   MONSANTO WINS, FOR NOW

SOURCE:  High Country News, USA

AUTHOR:  Ari LeVaux

URL:     http://www.hcn.org/hcn/wotr/monsanto-wins-for-now

DATE:    16.02.2011

SUMMARY: "Both announcements were great news for Monsanto, which owns both types of GM seeds, as well as for Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, though it must be admitted that Vilsack was under tremendous pressure from conventional growers and the Obama administration. But Vilsack?s trips on Monsanto corporate jets while governor of Iowa are well documented, and his ?Governor of the Year? award from the Biotechnology Industry Association now seems well deserved. Both of Vilsack?s recent deregulations were big victories for the biotech industry as a whole."

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MONSANTO WINS, FOR NOW

Ari LeVaux is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He writes about food and food politics from his home in rural New Mexico.

The Obama administration struck a blow against freedom for food and agriculture in late January, when the U.S. Agriculture Department deregulated genetically modified alfalfa seed. The agency?s decision threatens to deprive farmers of the right to produce milk and meat free of genetic tampering, and it also threatens the right of consumers to purchase unadulterated food.

Then a week later, on Feb. 4, the Agriculture Department did it again, this time by partially deregulating sugar beet seed that had been genetically modified.

Both announcements were great news for Monsanto, which owns both types of GM seeds, as well as for Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, though it must be admitted that Vilsack was under tremendous pressure from conventional growers and the Obama administration. But Vilsack?s trips on Monsanto corporate jets while governor of Iowa are well documented, and his ?Governor of the Year? award from the Biotechnology Industry Association now seems well deserved. Both of Vilsack?s recent deregulations were big victories for the biotech industry as a whole.

The USDA defied an order from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which said that an environmental impact statement was necessary before it could deregulate the sugar beet seed. USDA deregulated it anyway, and even if the agency is penalized for its decision, the seed will have been planted.

Nearly all the beet seed produced in the country -- seed for conventional and organic alike, both sugar and table beets -- is grown in Oregon?s Willamette Valley. The reason is simple: It?s the nation?s best spot to grow beets, and chard, too, which cross-pollinates with beets. Once GM sugar beets are planted in the Willamette Valley, non-GM beet and chard plants will most likely be exposed to genetically modified sugar beet pollen.

In the case of alfalfa, even the nation?s most powerful corporate-rights activist group -- also known as the U.S. Supreme Court -- recognized that deregulated GM alfalfa presented unacceptable risks to the environment, consumers and business. The court ruled last summer that USDA must complete an environmental impact statement before deregulating GM alfalfa seed.

In response to this ruling, USDA dutifully held a public comment period and drafted an environmental impact statement, which contained plenty of reasons to be wary of GM alfalfa. The agency then proceeded to ignore these warnings and grant full deregulation to GM alfalfa anyway.

In choosing this path, USDA decided against the more conservative option of partial deregulation, which would have provided mechanisms for keeping track of what happens to the genes that Monsanto will be releasing into the environment.

It?s a matter of when, not if, GM alfalfa DNA starts showing up in the feed of organic dairy cows. According to the Associated Press Feb. 7, ?Contamination of organic and traditional crops by recently deregulated, genetically modified alfalfa is inevitable, agriculture experts said, despite Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack?s recent assurances the federal government would take steps to prevent such a problem.?

When the genes escape, organic regulators will find themselves in a tricky spot: Either revoke organic certification for the ?offender? -- the victim of GM contamination -- or try to broaden organic standards to allow genetic modification. The latter would be a dream come true for the biotech seed industry, though it?s hard to believe that organic growers -- responsible for the food industry?s fastest-growing segment -- would tolerate such a move.

Tom Philpott, food editor at Grist.org, points out that we can find a bit of comfort in the fact that, unlike the deregulation of alfalfa, the deregulation of sugar beet seed is partial, meaning USDA is supposed to monitor where the GM beets are planted and make sure the genes don?t spread. But it is likely the genes will spread, no matter how carefully USDA and Monsanto try to prevent it.

For now, the court system offers the best opportunity to block the proliferation of genetically modified plants and their seeds. The Center for Food Safety, based in Washington and San Francisco, may be an underdog against Monsanto and the Agriculture Department, but the nonprofit is, as they say in Las Vegas, a live dog that has pulled upsets before. The center has become active in both GM alfalfa and sugar beet litigation, and for now, it?s the David that has the best chance of halting a corporate-governmental Goliath.



                                  PART 3

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TITLE:   FEDS APPROVE MONSANTO HERBICIDE-RESISTANT CROPS

SOURCE:  Truthout, USA

AUTHOR:  Mike Ludwig

URL:     http://www.truth-out.org/feds-approve-monsanto-herbicide-resistant-crops67796

DATE:    15.02.2011

SUMMARY: "?USDA has failed to provide the public with sufficient scientific data on the economic impacts of contamination on food production, or information on how USDA will ensure Syngenta?s compliance with a stewardship plan,? said NAMA President Mary Waters. The USDA is counting on a ?closed loop system? created by Syngenta to prevent Event 3272 corn from contaminating the food supply and is encouraging dialogue between Syngenta and the food industry."

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FEDS APPROVE MONSANTO HERBICIDE-RESISTANT CROPS

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has approved plantings of three genetically engineered (GE) crops in as many weeks, including Monsanto Co.?s Roundup Ready sugar beets and alfalfa that are engineered to tolerate Roundup Ready weed-killing herbicide.

The USDA on February 11 also legalized, without restriction, the world?s first GE corn crop meant for biofuel production. Biotech giant Syngenta?s Event 3272 seed corn will simplify ethanol production and is not meant to feed animals or humans.

The approvals flew in the face of legal and regulatory challenges posed by GE crop opponents and members of the agricultural industry. Opponents fear the GE crop varieties could contaminate conventional food crops and promote the overuse of herbicides like the glyphosate-based Roundup and more toxic chemicals used to kill glyphosate-resistant weeds.

Monsanto won a victory on February 4 when the USDA partially deregulated Roundup Ready sugar beets. A federal court in August 2010 temporarily banned the beets and ordered the USDA to re-review the environmental impacts of the Roundup Ready sugar beets as the result of a lawsuit filed by farmers and environmental groups.

Plaintiff attorney Paul Achitoff from the environmental group Earthjustice said the USDA?s decision to allow plantings of the sugar beets under ?lax conditions? violates federal law. However, the USDA said the beets pose no ?plant pest risk? and farmers can start planting them before a final Environmental Impact Statement is issued in 2012.

Roundup Ready alfalfa was legalized without any restrictions on January 27 after nearly five years of legal battles that pitted farmers and GE critics against the USDA and Monsanto.

The USDA disappointed GE critics again last week when it fully deregulated Swiss agribusiness giant Syngenta?s Event 3272 GE corn. The corn is genetically engineered to produce an enzyme that converts starch to sugar, making it easier to process the corn and turn it into the biofuel ethanol.

The North American Millers Association (NAMA), a normally pro-biotech organization that represents 170 agricultural mills in 38 states, is concerned that Event 3271 kernels could accidentally mix with corn meant for food processing and damage the quality of food products like snacks and breakfast cereals.

?USDA has failed to provide the public with sufficient scientific data on the economic impacts of contamination on food production, or information on how USDA will ensure Syngenta?s compliance with a stewardship plan,? said NAMA President Mary Waters.

The USDA is counting on a ?closed loop system? created by Syngenta to prevent Event 3272 corn from contaminating the food supply and is encouraging dialogue between Syngenta and the food industry, according to a release. The USDA is aware that some millers and food processors are concerned about Event 3272 and is promoting participation in an industry advisory council sponsored by Syngenta to review the ?closed loop system.?

Bill Freese, GE critic and policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety (CFS), said that the USDA should to take a closer look at Syngenta?s track record.

A 2004 investigation conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed that Syngenta had illegally distributed GE seed corn engineered to produce an unregistered pesticide on over 1,000 occasions to farmers in the US, South America and Europe.

The EPA fined Syngenta $1.5 million in 2006 for distributing the seed corn, which produced a then unregistered pesticide called Bt 10.

The USDA did not classify Event 3272 corn as a crop grown to produce an industrial compound during its review of Syngenta?s petition to legalize the corn, and NAMA argues that the agency would have completed a more thorough scientific review of the product if it regulators classified it as industrial.

A USDA spokesperson told Truthout that Event 3272 is not considered an industrial product crop because its extra genetic traits turn starch into sugar, not ethanol itself.

Syngenta?s own recently released data shows Event 3272 would have ?adverse impacts? on food quality if it entered the conventional corn supply, according to NAMA.

NAMA spokesperson Terri Long said the millers? association is concerned about food product quality and not Syngenta?s past violations.

Freese said that Event 3272 is supposed to be used for domestic ethanol production, but Syngenta has applied for import approvals for Event 3272 in nations where the US exports corn. Freese said Syngenta is trying to avoid liability in case Event 3272 does contaminate the domestic corn supply.

Freese and CFS helped represent plaintiffs in the lawsuits against the USDA that challenged initial approvals of Roundup Ready alfalfa and sugar beets.