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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

GMO corn and alfalfa coming our way, ready or not

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced February 11 it would deregulate industrial corn that is genetically engineered for ethanol production, saying the crop does not pose a plant risk.

Syngenta Seeds, which developed the corn, said its Enogen seed would be available by 2012 for large scale commercial planting under contracted, closed production. The corn is genetically engineered to produce an enzyme that speeds the breakdown of starch into sugar, which would increase efficiency in making the biofuel.

Bill Freese of the Center for Food Safety wrote on his group's website, "Syngenta's biofuels corn will inevitably contaminate food-grade corn, and could well trigger substantial rejection in our corn export markets, hurting farmers."

"The USDA's decision defies common sense," said Margaret Mellon, director of Union of Concerned Scientists's Food and Environment Program. "There is no way to protect food corn crops from contamination by ethanol corn. Even with the most stringent precautions, the wind will blow and standards will slip. In this case, there are no required precautions."

Food processors are also concerned about the cost of monitoring their corn supplies for contamination, Mellon noted. Syngenta acknowledges that processors will have to test food supply corn, forcing millers to cover that cost. Syngenta Seeds maintains the corn will reduce the amount of water, energy and chemicals used to make ethanol; a third of all corn grown in the U.S. already goes to ethanol production. David Morgan, president of Syngenta Seeds, said in a statement, "The adoption of Enogen grain by U.S. ethanol producers can unleash a cascade of efficiency and environmental benefits industrywide."

The Center for Food Safety argued that "it is irresponsible to engineer corn for fuel use at a time when massive diversion of corn to ethanol has played a significant role in raising food prices and thus exacerbating world hunger." 

Last month, the USDA ruled that it will allow unlimited, unrestricted, nation-wide commercial planting of Monsanto’s genetically-engineered Roundup Ready alfalfa. For the past four years, there had been a ban on the planting and sale of GM alfalfa, as a result of a lawsuit brought by the Center for Food Safety on behalf of farmers. The fear is that the GM crop will likely destroy organic alfalfa because the crop is so invasive and its seeds are so easily spread by the wind. Organic alfalfa is essential for organic meat production.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said GM alfalfa and non-GM alfalfa should be able to co-exist.

"This is very disappointing," said Will Fantle, co-director of the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute, an organic and small-farm watchdog group that is a plaintiff in a lawsuit brought against the USDA claiming that it did not take the required legal steps before originally approving GM alfalfa in 2007. "Tens of thousands of people spoke out against this contamination," Fantle said. "They were completely ignored. It looks like the biotech industry has all the political power."

Dr. Grout’s comment:

The USDA’s ruling on alfalfa means that farmers are free to plant GM alfalfa, and the USDA will not be keeping track of who plants it where. There will be no tracking, no notification system, and no responsibility on the part of Monsanto for any business that is lost as a result of genetic contamination.

Alfalfa is the main forage crop for dairy cows and one of the principle foods for beef cows, especially grass-fed cattle. Alfalfa is a perennial, easily lasting five years once planted. And it's bee-pollinated, which means every non-GM alfalfa plant within five miles of every GM alfalfa plant may be contaminated by GM pollen carried by bees.

According to sustainable food systems advocate and author Michael Pollan, "93 percent of alfalfa hay is grown without any herbicide at all", which means that the GM alfalfa seed developed by Monsanto in order to resist its Roundup herbicide "is a bad solution to a problem that doesn't exist."

In an article at TruthOut, reporter Mike Ludwig noted that House Committee on Agriculture members pressed Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to fully deregulate Roundup Ready alfalfa and reject the proposal to geographically isolate it from traditional alfalfa. Frank Lucas (R-OK) was elected chairman of the Agriculture Committee in December. Monsanto was one of the top contributors to Lucas’s campaign committee in 2010. A political action committee and individuals associated with Monsanto donated $11,000 to his campaign last year, and Lucas has received $1,247,844 from the agribusiness industry during his political career, according to watchdog site

No wonder the average person feels left out of decisions about genetically modified food and unheard. 

Can public pressure make a difference? The Alliance for Natural Health wants “to blanket Congress with protests, asking senators and representatives and oversight committees to review the deregulation decision” and is circulating a petition.

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