Haymaker: How the deregulation of genetically-modified alfalfa splintered the organic community

by Jeff Hake

Correction: Gianni Ortiz’s current position was reported incorrectly. She is the director of FarmAssist Productions, not an activist and writer with the Real Food Challenge. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.

In December of 1997, the USDA published a draft of its organic food standards. This draft included a few production practices,common on conventional American farms, that became known as “The Big Three”, according to Robert Gottlieb, author of Environmentalism Unbound: food irradiation, the use of sewage sludge, and genetically modified crops and hormone-injected beef. The incorporation of such practices into the organic standards touched off a firestorm of protests that in part amounted to 275,000 public comments, the largest lodged for any USDA action. Such virulent outcry is not easily ignored, especially not in the “people’s department”. Ensuing drafts of the organic standards were written, and two years later, the Big Three had been removed from the organic standards, against the wishes of many members of the food industry.

Just over 13 years later, the USDA has decided to completely deregulate glyphosate-tolerant (GT) alfalfa, a genetically modified organism. From this, another firestorm has ensued, and while its agribusiness creators and USDA regulators may yet be affected by this conflagration, this storm has largely raged elsewhere. The organic community, composed of Big Organic trade associations, consumer groups, activists, academics, practitioners and concerned citizens, has fallen to infighting in the wake of this latest decision, resulting in confusion, hostile rhetoric, and halting action.

Any argument about the role of genetic modification in organic agriculture would seem to have died somewhere in the massive pile of negative comments sent to the USDA over a decade ago. It is a technology that is reviled by concerned growers and eaters alike for possible harm to human health, the environment, and small farm economy and independence, but most often for what is simply unknown about it even as it becomes an institution in the agricultural landscape. However, the deregulation of GT alfalfa has struck a chord amongst those concerned growers and eaters, in a particularly minor key. The debate amongst them continues to rage, but the planting season fast approaches and the question remains: why is everyone so angry about the approval of this one little genetically modified legume?

What is alfalfa, anyway?

Alfalfa holds a unique place in American agriculture. We all know of the ubiquity of corn, wheat and soybeans. Michael Pollan has seen to that, and besides, these are foods that we can largely identify on sight. But what is alfalfa?

Alfalfa, Medicago sativa, is the primary forage for animal production in the United States, and is our fourth-most planted crop. When you eat beef or drink anything with cow’s milk, even from local, organic, grassy pastures, it is nearly inevitable that you will be  consuming “second-hand” alfalfa. The same goes for when you eat many other foraging animals. And yet, even in a time of intense scrutiny of the American food system, alfalfa has gone largely unnoticed beyond the sprouts one may sprinkle on salads and sandwiches.

In addition to this distance from consumers, alfalfa is distinct for its biology. While America’s major grains are wind-pollinated and soy is primarily self-pollinated, alfalfa is insect-pollinated, meaning that its pollen travels much further than those of other major crops. Furthermore, corn, soy, wheat, and many other important crops have no known native relatives in North America (corn today is so vastly different from its Central American ancestors that they cannot cross-pollinate), while alfalfa has several genetic relatives growing naturally across the United States.

These traits that distinguish alfalfa from other crops in our food system set the stage for a new kind of battle over genetic modification. It took politics and personalities to fire the first arrow.

Alfalfa gets modified

In April of 2004, Monsanto and Forage Genetics International, a US-based alfalfa breeding company that counts the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation and the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service amongst its collaborators, requested a “determination of nonregulated status” (meaning that they could be sold and planted without restriction) for two new lines of alfalfa that they had genetically modified to tolerate the herbicide glyphosate, most commonly sold under the Monsanto brand RoundUp. For farmers, this means that they can plant alfalfa, a crop particularly prone to pressure from weeds, and then spray glyphosate, which will kill every plant in the field except for their intended corp.

The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) had already approved a few other varieties of glyphosate-tolerant, or “RoundUp Ready”, crops, as well as several other kinds of genetically-modified organisms. To approve these, APHIS is required to conduct an Environmental Assessment to determine if plants to be introduced pose a significant “plant pest risk”, or in other words, if they will become weeds in the natural landscape. By June 2005, APHIS had determined that GT alfalfa lines J101 and J163 did not pose a plant pest risk and had given them nonregulated status. RoundUp Ready alfalfa went on the market shortly thereafter.

However, nine months later, a coalition of organic growers and advocates, ranging from seed companies to the National Family Farm Coalition and the Sierra Club, filed a lawsuit which requested that GT alfalfa retain its regulated status until APHIS had conducted an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), a more rigorous examination of plant pest risk than the original Environmental Assessment. The coalition alleged that contamination of non-genetically modified seeds with GT genes would cause members of the coalition economic damage, and that those genes could spread to wild populations.

The coalition won this case and APHIS changed GT alfalfa’s status back to regulated, after which all sales and planting were halted. A series of appeals eventually brought the case to the Supreme Court in Monsanto v. Geerston Seed Farms, where the judges ruled in favor of Monsanto, 7-1, reversing the outright ban on planting GT alfalfa. However, the court upheld the need for the USDA’s APHIS to conduct an EIS before a final regulatory decision could be made, and the alfalfa lines remained regulated.

A draft EIS released in December 2009 had described two alternatives going forward: to take no action,  thus maintaining GT alfalfa as a regulated article that could not be planted or sold, or to allow the sale and planting of GT alfalfa without restriction. The 75-day public comment period elicited over 244,000 responses to this draft, and APHIS attempted to work these comments into their final draft.

The final draft was issued in December 2010. One of the major changes made in the final EIS was to include a third regulatory alternative, a sort of compromise that would be unlikely to satisfy industry or the organic community: deregulation with restrictions, though those restrictions had yet to be defined beyond “isolation distances” and “geographic restrictions” in order to keep modified gene transfer to a minimum. This alternative “incorporates measures to facilitate coexistence…of all types of agricultural practices”. The EIS also emphasized that complete deregulation and the “coexistence” alternative were its “preferred” alternatives, based on the findings of the EIS. Both “coexistence” and “preferred” would prove to be surprisingly fateful terms for the organic community in the coming weeks.

On January 27th, the USDA announced its decision to fully deregulate GT alfalfa, allowing its sale and planting without restriction. And the organic community erupted.

Circular firing squad

“Has it been a difficult time?” I asked Hugh Joseph.

“It has been, yeah.”

Dr. Hugh Joseph, research associate at the Friedman School, has long been involved in facilitating conversation in the food security and sustainable agriculture movement. Amongst numerous other projects, Joseph manages the COMFOOD listserv, an email list to which anyone can subscribe and which currently has over 4,800 subscribers.  The list is generally used for job and event postings, or calls for help with research and community projects, occasionally calls to action for one cause or another. Many subscribers receive emails from the list in one digest at the end of each day, which combines up to 25 messages into one large email, but usually contains closer to ten.

On January 28th, subscribers received three such emails  of COMFOOD digest, the most activity the list had ever seen. This rampant messaging would continue for weeks and the listserv would act as parade grounds for the slow fracturing of a movement.

The first to sound the alarm on the USDA’s press release were the Cornucopia Institute and Food Democracy Now, which effectively set the conversational tone with the subject headings “Urgent: Call President Obama TODAY to Reject Monsanto’s GMO Alfalfa” and “BREAKING NEWS:USDA to Fully Deregulate Monsanto’s Genetically Engineer [sic] Alfalfa —-Gene Contamination of Feed, Milk, Meat and Other Products to Follow”. These were followed quickly by a salvo of emails from other non-profits and activists, weighing in on the political process in Washington, the consequences of the decision, and vehement calls to immediate action. Discussion of the USDA as a “rogue agency” and boycotts against Monsanto ensued, and it was around this time that Joseph issued his first plea for order: “I am still seeing a few subscribers giving in to the temptation to comment on every topic and squeeze the last morsel from each discussion…I again respectfully request adherence to guidelines.”

However, the dialogue around GT alfalfa soon went from alarmed to ugly.

The day of GT alfalfa’s deregulation, Ronnie Cummins, the national director of the Organic Consumers’ Association (OCA), “the only organization in the US focused exclusively on promoting the views and interests of the nation’s estimated 50 million organic and socially responsible consumers”, wrote a public letter directed not at the USDA, but at some of the nation’s largest organic purveyors. Entitled “The Organic Elite surrenders to Monsanto: What Now?”, Cummins voiced in no uncertain terms his and the OCA’s anger with the “cabal of the Organic Elite, spearheaded by Whole Foods Market, Organic Valley, and Stonyfield Farm”:

Top executives from these companies have publicly admitted that they no longer oppose the mass commercialization of GE crops, such as Monsanto’s controversial Roundup Ready alfalfa, and are prepared to sit down and cut a deal for “coexistence” with Monsanto and USDA biotech cheerleader Tom Vilsack…In a cleverly worded, but profoundly misleading email sent to its customers last week, Whole Foods Market, while proclaiming their support for organics and “seed purity,” gave the green light to USDA bureaucrats to approve the “conditional deregulation” of Monsanto’s genetically engineered, herbicide-resistant alfalfa.

This letter quickly entered the blogosphere and onto COMFOOD and around it the dialogue began to circulate. Gary Hirshberg, CEO of Stonyfield Farms, along with other members of the “cabal” and leaders of other organic interest groups, issued their own public letters that lambasted Ronnie Cummins and the OCA for their “baseless interpretations and accusations by a person who was not present for any of the deliberations he critiqued” and wondered “why someone who supposedly wants to stop the Monsanto steamroller from its pernicious campaigns to deregulate genetically engineered crops would turn his venom on allies as opposed to this very obvious and powerful adversary?”

Hirshberg and other members of the Organic Trade Association (OTA), made up of hundred of corporations that sell organic produce (though not exclusively) and constitute what Cummins would refer to as the Organic Elite, insist that they were left with no options by Tom Vilsack’s USDA. Despite some public indications that all regulatory alternatives were being considered, it was made quite clear behind closed doors to the consulted stakeholders, which included both biotechnology companies and the OTA, that the “No Action Alternative”, in which GT alfalfa would remain restricted, was not going to be part of the conversation:

Many have asked why we endorsed the coexistence option rather than an outright ban on GE [genetically-engineered] alfalfa. The answer is we didn’t. When it was an option we strongly endorsed an outright ban. However, the option of an outright ban was taken off the table.

Left with the “coexistence” and complete deregulation alternatives, what had been framed as “preferred” alternatives, the OTA set out to hedge its bets, outlining a rigorous set of mitigating practices that would, hopefully, maintain a distance between GT alfalfa and the fields of organic growers. The biotech industry balked at these restrictions and, in the end, got their way.

This, of course, left Hirshberg and the others who had “been in the room” with nothing but an angry customer base and despite any explanations in their defense, including from other organic interest groups and individuals, the vitriol continued to escalate. Much of this played out on blogs and a bit of it in more liberal news sources like the Huffington Post. However, COMFOOD became an open wound, with raw, unfiltered commentary flooding inboxes and driving all comers to one side of the issue or the other, or away from the conversation entirely. Over the course of the weeks after the GT alfalfa deregulation, the flavor of the conversation went from boycotts and “rogue agencies” to the Nuremberg trials, genocide, and the riots in Egypt.

This left Joseph with the unenviable task of toning down the rhetoric and maintaining the objective role of list manager.

“The listserv has a very broad scope,” says Joseph in a characteristically measured tone, “and it’s getting to be a weakness.” Instead of expressing frustration with COMFOOD or its subscriber base, he cited “a handful of people [who] are providing a sort of endless supply of repeated postings.”

It took dozens of blunt emails, both public and private, from Joseph to finally wrangle the posting volume back to normal and retain a cooler conversation, the most public back-and-forth being between Joseph and Gianni Ortiz, director of FarmAssist Productions, which culminated in her near-expulsion from the list. However, Joseph was eventually able to convince subscribers to take the conversation to other outlets, which culminated in the creation of several off-list forums about which he was very pleased.

The conversation continues

Of course, that does not mean that the issue cannot be discussed on COMFOOD or anywhere else, and continue it has up until today, albeit with considerably less hostility and use of the “send” button. The latest proposal on COMFOOD, a “Nickle [sic] Fund”, would ask the members of the OTA to “commit…5% of their gross income for the next five years to a fund that helps small farmers, consumers, and non-GMO institutions fight back against GE Alfalfa.” Many other proposals have also been floated out, the most widely-accepted being a renewed push for labelling of foods made from GM crops, and the dialogue about the degree to which the OTA “caved” and the USDA sold America’s future continues on, but one thing is clear: the organic and “real food” community remains heavily fractured.

Is the OTA to blame? Is GT alfalfa as dangerous as is being purported? Is the USDA a rogue agency? Is organic farming and food doomed? These are the big questions that are being asked by those who consider themselves food and agriculture activists and concerned citizens, but the answers are not readily forthcoming. Hardline organic activists will say that the members of the OTA did not push back against the USDA’s insistence for deregulation, that numerous studies have given intriguing evidence of the harm of genetically modified crops to human health and the environment, that the USDA heard the few larger voices of industry and not the thousands of small voices of the American public, and that all food will be contiminated with modified genes within a few years. However, each of these answers comes with substantial caveats that cannot be heard over a racket of chest-thumping and teeth-gnashing.

This latest decision by the USDA and its ensuing fallout evinces an inability of all concerned parties to listen, compromise and exert caution. The ability to engage in constructive dialogue about these issues is all the more important given the steady release of other GM varieties.Since January 27th, the USDA has deregulated both GM sugar beets (though that is still held up in the courts system) and amylase corn, a genetically-modified corn variety that will be grown exclusively as a feedstock for the corn ethanol industry. The FDA may also soon make a regulatory decision on GM salmon, a first-of-its-kind decision on genetically-modified animals which, either way, will set a whole new precedent for genetically-modified organisms in the United States and around the world.

The organic community stands in the way of a certain kind of progress it cites as dangerous, built on cutting-edge technology and industrial models without foresight. It strives instead for an agricultural future free of chemicals, radiation, biotechnology and faceless industry, which it deems safer, healthier and more sustainable for generations to come. However, hostile rhetoric, misinformation and stubbornly blocked ears have left it weakened and broken, unable to fight the uphill battle to which it has committed. Meanwhile, its adversaries march on and its worst fears loom larger. If the OCA, the OTA and all other Americans who consider themselves conscious eaters are to again fight for their vision of the future of food and agriculture, they will have to heal the fractures of their own infighting and speak again with a unified voice, and soon.

Jeff Hake is in his last semester of the Agriculture, Food and the Environment program at the Friedman School, so long as everything goes according to plan. He really likes tea, breakfast and farms, and spends a lot of time thinking about each of those things everyday.

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