Roundup Ready alfalfa claims disputed (5/8/2007)

Reader disputes Roundup Ready alfalfa claims
The Prairie Star, August 4 2007

To the editor:

On June 22, Mike Waters of Growers for Biotechnology wrote about a March 2007 court decision that banned future sales and planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa, a genetically engineered variety initially commercialized in June 2005.

In his piece, Waters deplores the judge's ruling, and credits the "organic activists and environmental extremist groups" and their "all organic, no biotech crop agenda" for the ruling. Yet, a landmark lawsuit such as this (a court has never before vacated a USDA decision to approve a genetically engineered crop) deserves a deeper examination. The nature of alfalfa and its significance to the organic industry points toward a reality different than the one Waters paints.

The organic food industry was worth $17 billion in 2006, and continues to grow by about 20 percent each year (compared to the conventional food industry's rate of 2 to 3 percent). Organic alfalfa is an essential component to this growth. The total number of certified organic livestock, especially beef cattle and dairy cows, increased by a startling 572 percent between 1997 and 2003. And several events show this demand is growing. For example, the U.S. has experienced a chronic shortage of organic milk, and California now imports some of its organic feed to meet the state's demands. Implicit in the demand for more organic meat and dairy products is the need for more organic feed, especially alfalfa.

Because alfalfa is an open-pollinated crop, markets for alfalfa seed and hay that shun, or reject outright, genetically engineered material in seeds and feed (such as certified organic and some export markets) risk acquiring the Roundup Ready trait through gene flow. The USDA National Organic Program does not allow the use of agricultural biotechnology in certified organic farming systems, so cross-pollination of Roundup Ready alfalfa with organic crops could increase production costs, reduce profits, or even eliminate markets for organic alfalfa producers.

Unfortunately, no law or regulation requires farmers who plant Roundup Ready alfalfa for hay to implement practices that prevent cross-pollination with neighbors' crops. And farmers can't control the weather; meaning, they can't always avoid hay stands going to bloom, from producing viable pollen. Instead, the burden of protecting alfalfa plants and sensitive markets from transgenic traits, such as planting buffer areas, is completely transferred to the producer of non-Roundup Ready alfalfa.

As for Roundup Ready alfalfa seed production, segregation distances proved ineffective even before the judge made his decision. In December 2006, just over a year after Roundup Ready alfalfa was commercialized, the Idaho Alfalfa and Seed Clover Association reported that Roundup Ready alfalfa traits were found in conventional alfalfa seed in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, including foundation seed, which contained enough transgenic material to deem it useless as seed stock.

This foundation seed was two miles from the nearest Roundup Ready field. At the time of these tests, segregation distances were set at 900 feet. Also in 2006, The Colorado State University Extension tested feral alfalfa plants at 23 sites in Mesa County along roadsides, abandoned fields, and edges of active hay fields within two miles of Roundup Ready alfalfa seed fields. Transgenic gene flow was found at 83 percent of the collection sites. Complete segregation of Roundup Ready and conventional (including organic) alfalfa varieties is simply unlikely.

Although only a small percentage of U.S. alfalfa is exported, Pacific Northwest growers export a much higher percentage of their crop, and stand to lose a $480 million market. Roundup Ready alfalfa's introduction depicts a notable difference between an export country's government approval of a genetically engineered crop and export customers' approval. Even after Japan's government approved Roundup Ready alfalfa for import, Jap-anese customers continued to show resistance to the transgenic variety. Some U.S. export companies relayed that Japanese customers (Japan accounts for 75 percent of the alfalfa export market) were de-manding documents that verified alfalfa shipments as free of transgenic traits.

Both the organic and biotechnology industries are rapidly growing, quite literally, side-by-side. Although biotechnology firms claim there is a successful "coexistence" between conventional and genetically engineered crops, farmers have been dealing with unwanted transgenic material (be it through gene flow or human error) in their crops for a decade, with little recourse for damages.

A recent example is last year's finding of an unapproved genetically engineered long-grain rice variety in the food supply. Though only approved for field trials and not human consumption, the rice strain found its way into the commercial rice supply in all five of the Southern states where long-grain rice is grown. Shock-ingly, this discovery was made five years after the manufacturer stopped growing the variety in experimental plots. A lawsuit was filed against the manufacturer on behalf of 400 rice producers, and export losses were estimated at $150 million.

The lawsuit that found USDA's approval of Roundup Ready alfalfa illegal leveled the playing field, and said that a crop variety can't be grown at the expense of significantly impacting another.

In other words, if transgenic gene flow affects organic farmers' ability to grow organic alfalfa free of transgenic traits, then the impacts must seriously be considered.

Furthermore, the case was filed shortly after USDA's own Inspector General released a report citing numerous problems with USDA's oversight of genetically engineered crops, stating that current regulations and policies do not go far enough to ensure the safe introduction of genetically engineered crops. Performing a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), as was ordered by the court, seems the least the agency can do.

Kristina Hubbard

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