by Marion Nestle
February 4, 2011
How did the USDA's plan for
peaceful coexistence among alfalfa growers end up with
the agency approving GM alfalfa with no restrictions?
Marion Nestle is
the Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food
Studies, and Public Health at New York University and
author of Food Politics; Safe Food; What to Eat; and Pet
Food Politics. Her website is
I’m still trying to understand how it happened that USDA’s plan for
peaceful coexistence among growers of alfalfa -
(GM), industrial (but not GM), and organic (definitely not GM) -
failed so miserably.
It was the first time that
to be recognizing the legitimacy of complaints that GM crops are
contaminating organic crops. I thought this was a food step forward.
But the USDA ended up approving GM alfalfa with no restrictions -
just promises to study the matter. I’ve now seen some explanations
that not only make sense, but also shed considerable light on how
agricultural politics works in Washington these days.
Sam Fromartz, author of
Organic, Inc, writes on
his blog that
after USDA’s decision:
The only appeasement the USDA
offered were panels on studying ways to prevent contamination
from occurring in the future. But this seems akin to studying
ways to protect a forest after loggers have been allowed to cut
down the trees.
The decision was a stunning reversal of a more measured approach
that Vilsack appeared to be taking in December, when the USDA
talked about considering the impact of the GM crop on other
sectors of agriculture.
But that was before he faced an uproar
by the GM industry and the editorial page of the Wall Street
Journal for playing nice with organic farmers.
Gary Hirshberg, in response to heavy
criticism that he sold out to
Monsanto, writes on the
Stonyfield is absolutely and utterly
opposed to the deregulation of GE crops.
We believe that these
crops are resulting in significantly higher uses of toxic
herbicides and water, creating a new generation of costly
“super” weeds, pose severe and irreversible threats to
biodiversity and seed stocks, do not live up to the superior
yield claims of their patent holders and are unaffordable for
small family farmers in the US and around the world.
We believe that organic farming methods are proving through
objective, scientific validation to offer far better solutions.
We also believe that unrestricted deregulation of GE crops
unfairly limits farmer and consumer choice.
…From the outset of these stakeholder discussions, it was clear
that GE alfalfa had overwhelming political, legal, financial and
regulatory support, and thus the odds were severely stacked
against any possibility of preventing some level of approval,
just as has been the case with GE cotton, soy, canola and corn.
Keep in mind that, according to Food and Water Watch, biotech
has spent more than half a billion dollars ($547 million)
lobbying Congress since 1999. Their lobby expenditures more than
doubled during that time. In 2009 alone they spent $71 million.
Last year they had more than 100
lobbying firms working for them, as well as their own in-house
In an interview with Food Chemical News
(Feb 3), Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the
Center for Food
Safety, one of the groups leading the opposition to GM alfalfa:
describes USDA’s promises as a
“stale gesture” toward organic and other industry groups that
had worked with the department on its proposed option for
partial deregulation of RR alfalfa.
He speculates that USDA was prepared
to go down the partial deregulation route but was “shot down at
the White House level…
“It’s not about organic and GMOs,” Kimbrell continues.
losses are not with organic crops but with conventional crops,”
such as rice commingled with Bayer’s authorized LibertyLink 601
variety and corn commingled with the StarLink variety.
growers can’t sell their crops to Europe or Asia. The issue is
how do we keep GMOs from contaminating conventional crops such
as rice, corn and now alfalfa?”
Food and Water Watch, another leading
group on this issue and the source of the lobbying data in Hirshberg’s comments, points out that the USDA’s decision to allow
unrestricted planting of GM alfalfa is not likely to be an isolated
The FDA is currently considering
approval of GM salmon, and its decision is expected soon.
Both organizations are organizing protests on their websites, but
this is how agricultural politics works these days.