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Vilsack greenlights Monsanto's alfalfa

1.ROGUE AGENCY CHOOSES "BUSINESS AS USUAL" OVER SOUND SCIENCE
2.BREAKING: In a stunning reversal, USDA chief Vilsack greenlights Monsanto's alfalfa

EXTTRACT: Thursday's announcement marks a complete USDA cave-in to the biotech industry's demands, and yet more evidence that Obama wants to be seen as a friend to powerful business interests -- at the expense of smaller, less powerful interests like organic alfalfa and dairy growers, and, in this case, of the public interest. (item 2)
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1.USDA DECISION ON GE ALFALFA LEAVES DOOR OPEN FOR CONTAMINATION, RISE OF SUPERWEEDS
The Center for Food Safety, January 27 2011
http://bit.ly/eRPGeA

ROGUE AGENCY CHOOSES "BUSINESS AS USUAL" OVER SOUND SCIENCE
 
CENTER ANNOUNCES IMMEDIATE LEGAL CHALLENGE TO USDA'S FLAWED ASSESSMENT
 
WASHINGTON, D.C. - The Center for Food Safety criticized the announcement today by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that it will once again allow unlimited, nation-wide commercial planting of Monsanto's genetically-engineered (GE) Roundup Ready alfalfa, despite the many risks to organic and conventional farmers USDA acknowledged in its Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS).

On a call today with stakeholders, Secretary Vilsack reiterated the concerns surrounding purity and access to non-GE seed, yet the Agency's decision still places the entire burden for preventing contamination on non-GE farmers, with no protections for food producers, consumers and exporters.

"We're disappointed with USDA's decision and we will be back in court representing the interest of farmers, preservation of the environment, and consumer choice" said Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director for the Center for Food Safety. " USDA has become a rogue agency in its regulation of biotech crops and its decision to appease the few companies who seek to benefit from this technology comes despite increasing evidence that GE alfalfa will threaten the rights of farmers and consumers, as well as damage the environment.

On Monday, the Center sent an open letter to Secretary Vilsack calling on USDA to base its decision on sound science and the interests of farmers, and to avoid rushing the process to meet the marketing timelines or sales targets of Monsanto, Forage Genetics or other entities.
CFS also addressed several key points that were not properly assessed in the FEIS, among them were:

    * Liability, Implementation and Oversight -- Citing over 200 past contamination episodes that have cost farmers hundreds of millions of dollars in lost sales, CFS demands that liability for financial losses incurred by farmers due to transgenic contamination be assigned to the crop developers.  CFS also calls on USDA to take a more active oversight role to ensure that any stewardship plans are properly implemented and enforced.

    *  Roundup Ready alfalfa will substantially increase herbicide use - USDA's assessment misrepresented conventional alfalfa as utilizing more herbicides than it does, which in turn provided a false rationale for introducing herbicide-promoting Roundup Ready alfalfa.  In fact, USDA's own data shows that just 7% of alfalfa hay acres are treated with herbicides.  USDA's projections in the FEIS show that substantial adoption of Roundup Ready alfalfa would trigger large increases in herbicide use of up to 23 million lbs. per year.

    *  Harms from glyphosate-resistant weeds - USDA's sloppy and unscientific treatment of glyphosate-resistant (GR) weeds ignored the significant contribution that RR alfalfa could make to their rapid evolution.  USDA failed to analyze how GR weeds fostered by currently grown RR crops are increasing herbicide use; spurring more use of soil-eroding tillage; and reducing farmer income through increased weed control costs, an essential baseline analysis.

"We in the farm sector are dissatisfied but not surprised at the lack of courage from USDA to stop Roundup Ready alfalfa and defend family farmers," said Pat Trask, conventional alfalfa grower and plaintiff in the alfalfa litigation.

The FEIS comes in response to a 2007 lawsuit brought by CFS, in which a federal court ruled that the USDA's approval of GE alfalfa violated environmental laws by failing to analyze risks such as the contamination of conventional and organic alfalfa, the evolution of glyphosate-resistant weeds, and increased use of glyphosate herbicide, sold by Monsanto as Roundup.    The Court banned new plantings of GE alfalfa until USDA completed a more comprehensive assessment of these impacts. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals twice affirmed the national ban on GE alfalfa planting. In June 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the ban on Monsanto's Roundup Ready Alfalfa until and unless future deregulation occurs.

"Last spring more than 200,000 people submitted comments to the USDA highly critical of the substance and conclusions of its Draft EIS on GE Alfalfa," said Kimbrell.  "Clearly the USDA was not listening to the public or farmers but rather to just a handful of corporations."
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The Center for Food Safety is a national, non-profit, membership organization founded in 1997 to protect human health and the environment by curbing the use of harmful food production technologies and by promoting organic and other forms of sustainable agriculture. CFS currently represents over 175,000 members across the nation.
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2.BREAKING: In a stunning reversal, USDA chief Vilsack greenlights Monsanto's alfalfa
Tom Philpott
Grist, 27 January 2011
http://www.grist.org/article/2011-01-27-in-stunning-reversal-usda-chief-vilsack-greenlights-monsantos-al

Government regulation of corporate practices has apparently been much on President Obama's mind lately. He recent penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed vowing to review federal regulations to make sure they weren't too onerous on business. In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, he illustrated his concern about the complexity of federal regulation by pointing out that two different agencies regulate wild salmon. "And when it's smoked, I understand it gets really complicated," he added. Ha, ha.

In other words, Obama is trying to establish himself as an eminently reasonable, pro-business sort of president -- you know, not the sort of fellow who would let things like the Wall Street banking meltdown, the Upper Big Branch coal-mine disaster, the BP oil spill, or any other notorious lapse in government oversight stand in the way of the business of doing business.

Obama's instantly famous "salmon joke" has me looking into how the government regulates salmon farms -- those vast factory-style pens concentrated mostly off the coast of Washington state. I'm not done with research and won't be until next week, as I'm preparing for a trip tomorrow to California to speak at the Edible Communities conference in Santa Barbara. The initial results of my research: government oversight of salmon farms consists mainly of encouraging them to produce as much salmon as possible.

This afternoon, my farmed-salmon research and trip prep were rudely interrupted by an unexpected regulation-related announcement: the USDA has decided to approve the use genetically modified alfalfa without any restriction.

The decision marks a sharp reversal: USDA chief Tom Vilsack had hinted strongly that he would place geographic restrictions on the growing of GMO alfalfa, to protect organic alfalfa growers from the threat of GMO contamination. He even floated a fancy name for the policy: "coexistence," as in GMO crops and organic crops all just getting along. Even such a relatively mild restrictive policy would have broken with the longstanding USDA practice of giving GMOs a free pass.

Food-industry critics applauded. "I see real progress here," NYU professor Marion Nestle wrote at The Atlantic. "At least -- and at last -- USDA recognizes the threat of GM agriculture to organic production." She declared Vilsack's even considering restrictions a "breakthrough." The biotech industry, meanwhile, reacted to the specter of regulation of a GMO crop with fury, backed up by farm-state senators.

Thursday's announcement marks a complete USDA cave-in to the biotech industry's demands, and yet more evidence that Obama wants to be seen as a friend to powerful business interests -- at the expense of smaller, less powerful interests like organic alfalfa and dairy growers, and, in this case, of the public interest.

Because I'm strapped for time, I'm dropping take on GMO alfalfa from a few weeks ago, in which I argue that the stuff should be banned outright:

The industry is demanding that the USDA allow unrestricted planting of the alfalfa, which mainly serves as feed for cows. Alfalfa represents a lucrative opportunity for Monsanto, because it's a massive crop, covering about 20 million acres, about 7 percent of U.S. cropland.

Yet there are a couple of glaring problems. Alfalfa is a prolific pollinator, meaning that GM alfalfa can easily cross-breed with non-GM alfalfa. If organic producers find their crop contaminated with GM material, they risk losing their organic certification and, likely, their livelihoods. The organic dairy industry, which relies on a steady supply of organic alfalfa, would also be imperiled.

The second problem is so-called "superweeds" -- weeds that develop resistance to Roundup, Monsanto's flagship herbicide. Such weeds are already rampant in the South, where Monsanto's Roundup Ready cotton holds sway, and are moving into the Corn Belt, which is blanketed by the tens of millions of acres with the agrichemical giant's corn and soy seeds. The rise of superweeds is unleashing a virtual monsoon of dodgy poison cocktails onto affected farmland.

Do we really want to subject organic growers and dairies to possible contamination and loss of their livelihoods, plus risk unleashing superweeds on another 20 million acres?

Evidently, for Vilsack, the answer is yes.

It's worth checking out this recent Food & Water Watch report on the gusher of cash the biotech industry spends on D.C. lobbying. The industry spent more than a half billion dollars on lobbying between 1999 and 2009, FWW reports. In 2009 alone, the GMO giants dropped a cool $71 million pushing its agenda. It's also worth noting the number of Monsanto-related people now working in key policy positions in the USDA.

Tom Philpott is Grist's senior food and agriculture writer.