Op-Ed, 635 words

The Problem with Genetically Engineered Alfalfa

From Maine to Mexico and beyond, Monsanto and other transnational corporations are trying to control seeds, land, water, and other key resources.

Bob St. Peter

Close observers agree that the Supreme Court’s Monsanto Company v. Geertson Seed Farms decision is a big deal, but many of us disagree about what it actually means. As a farmer and advocate, I view the ruling as a major victory because it helps determine who controls our seed supplies and our food sovereignty. This ruling, issued in June, declares that it’s still illegal to sell or plant Monsanto’s GM Roundup Ready alfalfa seed.

Monsanto also claims the Supreme Court’s ruling as a victory, stating that it “unequivocally overturns the ban on Roundup Ready alfalfa.” Yes, the Supreme Court agreed that the District Court had overstepped its boundaries by implementing the injunction to ban planting of the crop, but it also upheld that the USDA must complete an environmental impact statement (EIS) before approving genetically engineered alfalfa for planting. A ban on the crop will remain in effect until the USDA prepares a full assessment.

Shortly after this Supreme Court ruling, 56 members of Congress asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to provide a comprehensive environmental impact statement on genetically engineered alfalfa. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform then held a hearing in late July, exposing USDA’s role in lax approval processes, setting the stage for vigorous scrutiny in the future. Consumers, Congress, and the courts must monitor USDA’s actions on this issue.

The Supreme Court decision is only the latest in a series of rulings that have kept GE alfalfa out of the U.S. market. In 2006, the Center for Food Safety sued the USDA for approving Monsanto’s Roundup Ready alfalfa, which the company genetically engineered to resist the herbicide glyphosate without first obtaining the legally required environmental impact statement. The Center argued that the USDA had violated the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Plant Protection Act. In May 2007, the U.S. District Court in San Francisco found that the USDA had acted unlawfully and issued an injunction to halt planting of this kind of alfalfa until it had completed an impact statement. An appeals court upheld this decision last year, so the company brought the case to the Supreme Court.

While the USDA suggests that an environmental impact statement could take up to a year to complete, corporations that stand to profit are looking for expediency. Land O’ Lakes (which owns Forage Genetics International, a partner in developing genetically engineered alfalfa) and Monsanto are pushing the USDA to act quickly so they can unload their seed on farmers for the next crop year.

Alfalfa is the nation’s fourth-largest crop, generating $9.63 billion in annual revenue, including seed sales. As a key feed source for dairy cows, it’s vital to a systematic rotation that promotes biodiversity. USDA approval would provoke severe financial losses for alfalfa growers due to the contamination that results from cross-pollinating between traditional and genetically engineered crops. Widespread contamination would also destroy the organic milk industry as we know it, thus taking the decision beyond alfalfa.

Last year the Mexican government permitted Monsanto to conduct open field trials of genetically engineered corn; this will eventually lead to the contamination of thousands of corn varieties in the land where the crop was first cultivated nine millennia ago. Soy and corn growers in Brazil, Paraguay, and Canada are also grappling with the economic and environmental damages caused by contamination from Monsanto’s genetically engineered seeds. Family and peasant farmers across the world, including many in La Via Campesina movement, stand with us in anticipating that the Supreme Court’s alfalfa ruling will bolster global efforts to halt the advance of these crops everywhere.

From Maine to Mexico and beyond, Monsanto and other transnational corporations are trying to control seeds, land, water, and other key resources. That kind of corporate control is the single biggest threat to small farmers around the world.

Bob St. Peter is a farmer in Maine, the Director of Food for Maine's Future, and a member of the National Family Farm Coalition and La Via Campesina. He can be reached at [email protected] or [email protected]