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Alfalfa heats up biotech debate

By Staff | Jan 22, 2010

USDA’s public comment period on Roundup Ready alfalfa is open, and farmers are urged by Two Rivers Co-op in Pella to submit input before the end of January.

There is a narrow window of opportunity in the next few weeks to submit a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture taking a stand on Roundup Ready alfalfa. Some ag leaders say this input will affect growers’ choice to plant this and other biotech crops in the future.

A federal district court issued a ruling in 2007 that halted planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa until USDA completed an environmental impact statement. The draft EIS has now been published for public comment, and it recommends Roundup Ready alfalfa be deregulated again and available for farmers to choose to plant.

“The importance of this issue goes beyond alfalfa,” said Matt Van Weelden, an agronomy sales specialist with Two Rivers Co-op in Pella. “Some activist groups have expressed their desire to get rid of all biotech crops, including alfalfa, corn, soybeans and cotton.

The district court injunction against Roundup Ready alfalfa is setting a precedent to end the use of biotech crops.

“If this becomes a reality, U.S. crop production will be cut dramatically, food prices will soar and there will be serious food shortages.”

Two Rivers and others are urging farmers to visit www.roundupreadyalfalfa.com to find information on how to create a letter of support and submit it to USDA.

The site also includes a link that allows visitors to go directly to the USDA comment site. People are encouraged to submit their comments before the end of January 2010 to be sure their input is received in time to be counted.

Expresses concern

Roundup Ready alfalfa was reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration and was also approved by USDA before it first went on the market in 2005. Prior to the injunction, approximately 5,500 growers planted Roundup Ready alfalfa across 263,000 acres, according to Monsanto.

“We believe Roundup Ready alfalfa is a good tool for cattle producers, because it allows you to get a good quality stand of alfalfa established,” Van Weelden said.

Not everyone agrees. The Washington, D.C.-based Center for Food Safety said it is leading a coalition to “hold USDA accountable in its responsibility to protect all farmers and consumers.”

The group claims that genetically-engineered alfalfa will threaten the rights of farmers and consumers, as well as damage the environment. In a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, the CFS has also urged USDA to freeze approvals of GE crops.

“Allowing Roundup Ready alfalfa to be grown in fields across America without restriction spells the elimination of farmers like me who grow alfalfa and choose not to use Monsanto’s GE crops,” said Phillip Geertson, a CFS supporter and conventional alfalfa seed grower in Idaho. “Bees spread pollen for miles; it’s inevitable that the GE pollen will invade conventional and organic alfalfa, making it virtually impossible to grow non-GE alfalfa in just a few years.”

The CFS filed a lawsuit in early 2006 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, citing USDA’s failure to prepare an EIS.

CFS charged that USDA failed to analyze risks, such as the contamination of conventional and organic alfalfa and the development of “superweeds” that are resistant to Monsanto’s herbicide, Roundup.

In May 2007, Judge Charles Breyer enjoined the further sale or planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa, pending completion of the EIS by USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

In August 2007, Forage Genetics International, USDA, Monsanto and several Roundup Ready alfalfa growers filed an appeal in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The appeal was heard before a three-judge panel in June 2008. USDA’s general counsel argued that the injunction should not have been ordered without an evidentiary hearing, and that it imposed unnecessary restrictions and costs on alfalfa hay and seed growers.

However, the planting of GE alfalfa has been banned until the USDA completed an EIS. Now that USDA’s public comment period is open, it’s important to take advantage of this opportunity, Van Weelden said.

“We need people to speak up and express their support for biotech alfalfa, which offers safe, high-quality forage, environmentally-responsible weed control, improved productivity and more.”

Contact Darcy Dougherty Maulsby by e-mail at yettergirl@yahoo.com.

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