In the wake of the USDA’s disappointing approval of Roundup Ready (RR) alfalfa on January 27th, the organic community has been licking its wound—and creating some new ones.
I was among those who worked with George Siemon and Missy Hughes of Organic Valley to push USDA to impose conditions on the RR alfalfa approval in the hope that there will remain a supply of high quality, non-GE seed for organic farmers. While we made a little progress toward defining the essential ingredients of coexistence, the political pressure was too great on USDA, and the Department caved.
Reacting to USDA’s decision, some observers accused those who participated in the USDA-initiated dialogue on coexistence of selling out, caving in, accepting hush money, and/or undercutting the voice of the consumer.
Some groups called for boycotts of companies that had “conspired” with Monsanto to create cover for the USDA’s decision. Such accusations don’t even pass the laugh test, but some people took them seriously.
Farmers are now free to start planting RR alfalfa and the acreage in this latest GE crop will grow, unless the court intervenes again. While essentially 100% of conventional corn, soybeans, and cotton were sprayed with herbicides before the RR versions of those crops were approved, less than 10% of alfalfa has been treated with any herbicide in recent years.
Of course, Monsanto is hoping to change that, but the very high cost of RR alfalfa seed and the availability of other effective weed control methods will keep a lid on market penetration. Still, total GE crop acres in 2011 will likely exceed 150 million acres, or about one-half of the harvested cropland base.
Respected leaders in the organic dairy community have predicted dire consequences from this USDA decision. California dairyman Albert Strauss issued a media advisory on February 4th that states that the USDA decision “seriously jeopardizes the integrity of the organic food chain” and could ruin the “ability to supply organic dairy foods to customers.”
I have great respect for Albert and the wonderful creamery he and his family have created, but I don’t think it is useful or accurate to claim that the planting of RR alfalfa means an end to organic milk production. This “sky-is-sure-to-fall” reaction overstates the impact of the RR alfalfa decision, but if repeated often enough, it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. To the degree this happens, we will have no one to blame but ourselves.
Gene flow and cross-contamination of alfalfa seed and forage will happen but can be managed so that the levels remain very low. The amount of GE DNA in organic alfalfa forages will be miniscule and have essentially no impact on organic crop production, forage quality or milk production and milk quality.
The problems associated with RR alfalfa will impose new costs on organic farmers, but there is absolutely no reason a consumer should think any less highly of organic milk today than last week.
This latest GE crop decision by USDA does nothing to change the enormous cow health benefits of organic dairy production. It does not change the critical consumer health benefits associated with elevated levels of heart healthy fats in organic dairy products. All the agronomic and environmental benefits of producing dairy cow feed and forages organically remain intact.
The organic community deserves a chance to vent in the wake of this decision, and it is not surprising that there is a certain amount of finger pointing going on. But let’s get over it ASAP and focus our energies on activities that can make a difference.
My short list is –
· CROPP needs to get into the organic alfalfa seed business, since it is crystal clear that the organic community cannot count on the USDA and needs companies committed to producing quality organic seed.
· Organic farmers should, first of all, seek out and buy certified organic seed whenever possible. When buying alfalfa seed, request the seed provider test their organic seed lots to demonstrate absence of GE content down to a 0.1% threshold (i.e.: no more than one GE seed in 1,000 seeds or greater).
· The organic community needs to put in place an organic alfalfa animal feed testing program encompassing hay, silage, pastures and pellets to determine where and whether contamination is happening so that steps can be taken to deal with it via the courts or other mechanisms.
Dr. Charles Benbrook worked in Washington, D.C. on agricultural policy, science and regulatory issues from 1979 through 1997. He served for one and a half years as the agricultural staff expert on the Council for Environmental Quality at the end of the Carter Administration. Following the election of Ronald Reagan, he moved to Capitol Hill in early 1981 and was the Executive Director of the Subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture with jurisdiction over pesticide regulation, research, trade and foreign agricultural issues. In 1984, Benbrook was recruited to the job of Executive Director, Board on Agriculture of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), a position he held for seven years. Several influential NAS reports were completed in this period on the need for and aspects of sustainable agriculture. In late 1990, he formed Benbrook Consulting Services. Benbrook has written many reports, books and peer reviewed articles on agricultural science, technology, public health, and environmental issues.