cows in field

GE Alfalfa -- What’s the rush?!!

Added January 19, 2011. On January 24, 2011, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) will determine what actions (called a Record of Decision) it will take in response to the publication in late December 2010 of a final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the planting of Monsanto's genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa. This Record of Decision cannot be issued earlier than 30 days after the publication of the EIS on the Federal Register. The EIS took 47 months to complete after 5 years of court action and the USDA should not act on the recommendations within one month of its publication. Now is the time to call for a moratorium on the planting of GE alfalfa until the implications of the EIS can be analyzed and protective regulations put in place. The National Organic Coalition has responded to the EIS and Secretary Vilsack's request for input by developing a seven point GMO Contamination Prevention Plan which outlines a process for moving forward. The plan specifically includes the following:

  1. Establishment of a fully distinct and separate USDA public cultivar and breeds Institute to ensure that farmers have elite public cultivar and breeding choices that are not genetically modified and that germplasm collections are free of GMO contamination.

  2. Creation of a Contamination Compensation Fund in FSA or RMA funded by GMO patent holders and based upon their strict liability. This would provide immediate assistance to all farmers and other supply chain participants contaminated by GMOs, pending further necessary remedies of law and equity. Such a Fund would establish costs associated with the prevention of GMO commingling and contamination from seed to table and would include both perpetual type costs as well as identity preserved price differential costs for organic and other non-GMO.

  3. Ongoing GM crop regulation, including the complete elimination of deregulated GM crop status; including prior deregulations and on-going oversight and public evaluations of compliance and enforcement.

  4. Comprehensive, independent, longitudinal studies on the health impacts of eating GMOs and on the environmental and socio-economic impacts of release prior to GM cropapprovals.

  5. Prohibition of the growing of GM crops that are deemed too promiscuous to prevent GMO Contamination.

  6. Mitigation of food security risks associated with the concentration of any sector of our food system in the hands of a few companies or with the use of one food production technology or patented seeds or genotypes to the near exclusion of all others.

  7. Institution of an immediate labeling protocol for all GM crops, products, and ingredients in close collaboration with other agencies as required.

Why is the USDA putting the deregulation
of GE Alfalfa on the fast track?

The patent for the seed, held by Monsanto Forage Genetics International (FGI), runs out in 2014. Land O Lakes has presented the argument that they face an economic loss if they can't use the seed they have in storage this spring. Monsanto and FGI are against regulating GE alfalfa because, they claim, it would greatly diminish production. This would cut into the huge profits from producing GE alfalfa. Monsanto needs this genetically engineered alfalfa because several of its products contain glyphosate, which would be toxic to non-GE plants. If the USDA deregulates GE alfalfa, it would set a precedent: the USDA is set to complete an Environmental Impact Statement on Roundup® Ready sugar beets. Since the issues involved are almost identical, the outcomes would likely be the same as well.

As the fourth most-planted U.S. crop behind corn, soybeans, and wheat, alfalfa is worth $9 billion a year -- the dairy industry is the biggest consumer -- with annual seed sales valued at $63 million, according to a USDA study. Monsanto's Roundup Ready alfalfa seed has been genetically engineered to be tolerant of glyphosate, the active ingredient of Monsanto's herbicide Roundup.

As the first perennial crop proposed to be genetically engineered, alfalfa is open-pollinated by bees, which can cross-pollinate at distances of several miles. Alfalfa is forage harvested for hay and grazed, and as such, many times is allowed to go to seed, either intentionally or because of weather related harvest difficulties. Alfalfa hay is trucked across the country. The scientifically-validated promiscuous nature of GE gene flow will spread the patented, foreign DNA to conventional and organic crops. Such biological contamination threatens the livelihood of organic farmers and dairies, since U.S. Organic standards prohibit genetic engineering, and threatens conventional alfalfa exports, since most overseas governments and alfalfa importers reject GE-contaminated crops.


In April 2004, Monsanto and Forage Genetics International (FGI) requested non-regulated status of their GE alfalfa, genetically engineered to be resistant to herbicides containing glyphosate (including Monsanto's Roundup®). The USDA granted their request. In 2007, a federal district court judge found that the USDA had failed to consider the environmental impact before it had approved the GM alfalfa seeds for commercial planting. He then canceled the USDA's approval of the seeds, and imposed a national ban on planting them. As a result of this ruling the USDA initiated the EIS study. This was the first time that the U.S. government had ever undertaken such analysis for any GE crop. The 2007 ruling withstood two appeals by Monsanto in the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in 2008 and again in 2009. In 2010, the Supreme Court heard the case and the Court maintained the ban on the planting of GE alfalfa, pending a future deregulation decision. The Supreme Court also acknowledged that USDA had the right to regulate and deregulate biotechnology-derived crops under the Plant Protection Act (PPA). Any regulation must be based on sound science. It also ruled that "environmental harm" includes economic effects such as reduced agricultural yield or loss of market due to genetic contamination, as well as the concept of what biologists refer to as "gene flow" (in practice, the idea that genetically engineered material may get into conventional plants through cross-pollination). The Supreme Court accepted that this phenomenon in and of itself is harmful and illegal under current environment protections.

A Summary of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)

In the final EIS there were three alternatives analyzed. The first alternative was to deny the petition; so that glyphosate tolerant alfalfa, or Roundup Ready Alfalfa (RRA), would remain a regulated crop (permits would still be required for the importation, interstate movement, or release into the environment of glyphosate tolerant alfalfa). The second alternative was to approve the petition in full, and that would be to grant non-regulated status to RRA (no permits would be needed) and there will be no oversight on the production or the long-term environmental impacts of GE alfalfa. A third alternative is to approve the petition in part, with geographic restrictions and isolation distances. This alternative is designed to reduce potential cross-pollination between GE and non-GE alfalfa, and promote the availability of non-GE alfalfa seed and hay for GE-sensitive markets.

Under the third alternative there are three tiers based on the amount of alfalfa seed production that is grown in each of those states using the 2007 NASS census of agriculture. The assumption is that there can only be contamination by crops grown for seed. Under this alternative there is mandatory education for growers and no seed is to be harvested from foraged fields. There's labeling of seed bags and seed identification and developer reporting requirements. So the producer and the marketer would be required to report certain aspects, which are outlined in the EIS.

  • There will be 27 Tier One states (no seed grown), which require no isolation distances for growing alfalfa as hay or for grazing. No alfalfa seed can be grown.
  • The 12 states that are in Tier Two (one percent seed production) would be required to have isolation requirements of 165 feet between GE Alfalfa hay and any conventional seed production and the seed has to be mown at 10 percent bloom. In addition to that, there's also a 5 miles isolation distance between GE alfalfa seed and conventional seed.
  • In the Tier Three states – these are the 11 states that produce more than one percent of the U.S. alfalfa seed production. GE Alfalfa hay is not allowed to be grown in the counties where seed is grown. There are the same isolation requirements as Tier 2

In the northeast, every state but New York is designated as a tier 1 state. New York is a tier 2. While alfalfa seed production is not, at present, an economically significant activity in these states, in-state seed production of grains and forage crops is something that more and more farmers are interested in and engaged in. It is a growing aspect of developing the local food system. Some farmers are now producing organic red clover seed for sale to other farmers. In-state commercial production of high quality non-GE and organic alfalfa seed will likely be of growing interest to farmers in the future as contamination issues result in premiums for these non-GE seeds. If the northeast states are classified as Tier 1 states in the future and GE alfalfa is widely planted (and increasingly established on roadsides, etc) without regulatory controls, the significant risks associated with producing non-GE seeds will make the necessary investments prohibitively risky. Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, released poll data in March 2010 showing that two-thirds of organic food consumers are concerned about GE ingredients contaminating organic food. Considering the volume of value-added direct marketing of product in the northeast, being a tier 1 state will
inevitably affect consumer confidence in local food sold direct from the farm. The Tier 1 status, in other words, will effectively preclude the development of a growing business opportunity for farmers; expose organic dairy farmers to contamination and possible de-certification; expose vegetable farmers to inadvertently use the contaminated hay as mulch and contaminated alfalfa meal as a soil amendment; organic sprouts which constitute an important sector of the salad market may also be contaminated; and alfalfa also plays a major role in honey production. GE contamination threatens the marketing of organic and GE free products and there is the concern for health of the bees, the ecosystem, and humans.

USDA has not shown that contamination-free coexistence with deregulated GE alfalfa is likely or possible. USDA's EIS fails to take into account the documented increase in Roundup-resistant "super weeds" that is requiring the use of highly toxic herbicide cocktails for weed control on conventional farms. While conceding for the first time that GE contamination of organic and GE-free crops and markets is a major problem in the U.S., USDA's
court-ordered 2300 page EIS relies on faulty data and fails to take into account the scientifically-validated promiscuous nature of GE gene flow in crops. In fact, the EIS sorely lacks the type of rigorous scientific data and analysis that the public expects from the USDA to justify going forward with any type of deregulation of GE alfalfa. It also overlooks the widespread corruption of conventional seed varieties by GE strains (such as occurred with StarLink corn and LibertyLink rice); research that shows that Bt corn toxins remain active in aquatic ecosystems and are toxic to caddisfly larva; documented severe economic injury to farmers and markets.

A continue moratorium on the planting of GE Alfalfa will allow more time for consideration of all these issues.

For more information please go to:

Material sourced or copied from the National Organic Coalition, Center for Food Safety, Food and Water Watch; National Cooperative Grocers Association; Northeast Organic Farming Association -Interstate Council.