From: THE SCOOP – January 2011 Organic Center Newsletter
The long-awaited Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on Roundup Ready (RR) alfalfa was released by USDA on Thursday, December 16, 2010. The 2,300 page document identifies and analyzes three options – disapproval, approval without restrictions, and approval with restrictions to prevent gene flow from RR alfalfa to non-GM seed production fields. The first option was ruled out as unacceptable.
Potential impacts on the organic farming sector, and especially seed producers and organic dairy farmers, are evaluated in some detail in the EIS and its technical appendices, and were found to be modest and/or manageable.
In discussing the RR alfalfa EIS in a press call on December 16th, Secretary Vilsack said that “we don’t want to have judges say who can farm and who cannot…” In other press comments, the Secretary has emphasized the need to address and resolve the issues leading to litigation over emerging GE crops.
Earlier in the week, USDA officials invited a number of leaders in the organic community, including the CEOs of Organic Valley, Whole Foods, Stonyfield, UNFI, and OTA, to attend an “important” meeting December 20th in Washington, D.C. with representatives of the alfalfa and biotechnology industries.
The purpose of the meeting, attended by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, and several other senior USDA officials, was to explore “common ground” on how to provide for the peaceful co-existence of farmers planting GE alfalfa seeds, farmers growing conventional alfalfa, and organic farmers and food companies.
Coming just four days after the release of the RR alfalfa EIS, there was intense interest, and a degree of concern over this meeting among all stakeholder groups.
About 45 individuals attended the three-hour meeting. Secretary Vilsack explained that the USDA needed help from the alfalfa, biotech, and organic communities in identifying practical ways to achieve and sustain peaceful co-existence after approval of RR alfalfa. He said that in the absence of concrete ideas regarding how to move forward, all constituencies would have to accept what the Department decides upon when USDA issues its final decision later this winter.
The meeting included many remarkable comments and exchanges. Secretary Vilsack stated that the science case in support of RR alfalfa was not as strong and clear-cut as the biotech industry believes. He also stated that the legal foundation for USDA approval was not as solid as proponents claim, given the scope and nature of the possible adverse impacts and outcomes documented in the EIS.
In making this point, the Secretary was acknowledging USDA’s view that a decision to approve RR alfalfa, even with conditions, would likely be challenged in a new round of litigation, and that it would be a mistake to assume that the Department would win on the merits.
One representative of the biotech industry asked what the co-existence problem was and expressed the view that biotech, conventional, and organic farmers were getting along just fine now. He asked for evidence of real harm. Fred Kirschenmann participated in the meeting via speaker phone, and replied with a concrete example.
His farm in Windsor, North Dakota had made about $60,000 in net returns from the sale of organic canola annually for many years. When Roundup Ready canola was first introduced in North Dakota in the mid-1990s, Fred consulted with extension specialists, who said a two-mile buffer area should be sufficient to prevent gene flow from RR canola into his certified organic canola fields. He worked successfully with neighbours for a few years, and maintained such separation distances, but as RR canola became more popular, it became impossible to sustain such separation distances.
About the same time, buyers of Kirschenmann’s crop started asking for annual assurances that his canola crop was not contaminated with the RR gene. Without resorting to costly testing, the only way that a farmer can provide such assurance is to get a certificate or affidavit from his or her seed supplier stating that the company’s organic seed is free from GE contamination.
Once RR canola had gained significant market share and was widely grown in all parts of North America where canola is raised and seed produced, Kirschenmann was no longer able to find a seed dealer willing or able to make such a claim. And so, this market was lost.
The last part of the meeting focused on setting up a series of task forces to address the core issues – alfalfa hay and organic dairy, assuring purity of the organic alfalfa seed supply, and the true “hot potato,” how to cover the costs of ongoing monitoring and contamination episodes, i.e. a compensation mechanism.
Representatives of the organic community pledged to work with the Secretary in getting these task forces up and running, and expressed hope that some progress could be made.
A few of the alfalfa industry represents agreed to participate in the task forces, although no biotech industry participants did so during the meeting. After the meeting, one representative of the biotech industry said that he was “stunned” by what he had just heard and experienced. While most biotech industry representatives had little to say during the meeting, many were observed taking copious notes.
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