Late last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the deregulation of "Roundup Ready" Alfalfa, a controversial genetically engineered product that is used as hay for cattle. The move has the potential to challenge the integrity of what can be considered an "organic food"—as well as those who are in the business of producing and selling it.
First, a little history: The decision to deregulate genetically modified alfalfa comes after years of legal battles that began in 2005, when the USDA originally deregulated the use of genetically engineered—sometimes GE as shorthand—alfalfa. Then, as now, the organic community parried back. The argument: that genetically engineered alfalfa necessitates the use of more toxic herbicides, threatens biodiversity, and would be unaffordable to small farmers should they decide they wanted to use it. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an injunction to stop the use of genetically engineered alfalfa until the USDA could make a proper assessment of its environmental impact. That assessment was released in December, and presented two options: completely deregulate and allow unrestricted commercial growing of the grass, or restrict growing in order to protect non-genetically engineered crops.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and the USDA, decided on the former last week. In a release last Thursday, Vilsack announced that "there is no question as to the safety of Roundup Ready alfalfa" and said the decision to deregulate will give farmers the choice. "The ability of American farmers and ranchers and growers to continually have a multitude of choices to figure out what is best for their operation is a very important value in American agriculture," Vilsack said. "I think is very important in terms of ensuring that choice is maintained in the future."
But the response from organic food producers and activists has been loud and clear: The USDA decision to deregulate jeopardizes the future of organic food industry, and opens the door to other genetic-modification deregulations. Keith Menchey, the manager of science and environmental issues for the National Cotton Council of America, told the The New York Times the decision amounts to opening "Pandora's box."
The Organic Trade Association noted in statement that the Obama Administration made a "damaging decision" to approve the unrestricted cultivation of genetically engineered alfalfa." Other agencies, like the Center for Food Safety, echoed similar criticisms.
Andrew Kimbrell, the executive director for the Center for Food Safety, said in a statement that the "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—despite increasing evidence that GE alfalfa will threaten the rights of farmers and consumers, as well as damage the environment."
For example, Monsanto, a biotech firm whose reported gross profits in 2010 surpassed $5 billion, owns the trademark for Roundup Ready alfalfa. In a related statement, the Center for Food Safety urged the USDA to "avoid rushing the process to meet the marketing timelines or sales targets of Monsanto, Forage Genetics or other entities."
Among the most vocal businesses to criticize the deregulation have been Whole Foods Market, Organic Valley, and Stonyfield Farm. In addition to ethical objections, organic food producers and retailers stand to lose customers—both local and abroad—who prefer "all natural" ingredients. George Siemon, the founding farmer of Organic Valley, a mission-driven farm cooperative that makes organic milk, cheese, butter, and produce, said in a statement that he is "disappointed" by the recent USDA decision and saddened by the "industrialization of agriculture."
"I personally have been involved in the fight against GMOs for many years and was very disappointed that the biotech industry once again strong-armed their products through the approval process," he wrote. "We will keep engaging and challenging the USDA in a true and meaningful conversation about coexistence and protection of non-GMO farming."
Whole Foods Market, the large retailer of natural food based in Austin, Texas, featured a post on its blog noting that the company has "always supported the right for farmers to farm non-GMO crops and for consumers to choose non-GMO foods in the marketplace" and "It is difficult to express how disappointed we are by the USDA's decision to completely deregulate genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa without restrictions."
The story of GE alfalfa represents perhaps the ultimate saga in American capitalism, in which the interests of big business are squarely at odds with small business. Gary Hirshberg, the president of Stonyfield Farm, a New Hampshire-based organic dairy company, likens the situation to David versus Goliath.
"I've personally spent days, nights, weekends and vacations as we worked right though the holidays along with our colleagues to try to prevent this chemical giant from steamrolling over farmers, consumers and organic foods supporters," he wrote in a letter posted to Stonyfield's site. "So, it is particularly sad for me to report to you that in this latest round, which is surely just one chapter, they won and we lost."
But the organic food industry has not yet surrendered. In an op-ed today published by the Huffington Post, Hirshberg asserted that he and his cohorts will not accept the deregulation without a fight. "We now need every ounce of energy, time, muscle and money to be directed to renewing the battle in the courts but also to letting the White House and indeed all of our congressional representatives know that we do not support this takeover of our agriculture by a handful of chemical companies," he said.