The Time is Now: Tell the Secretary of Agriculture, "We Need a Total Ban on GM Alfalfa."

GMOs are, without a doubt, the most important issue of our generation. The decisions made now will have a decisive and irreversible impact on food security and health for uncountable numbers of generations in the future. Following a drawn out legal challenge to biotech industries by concerned farmers, the USDA recently announced that they are considering total or partial deregulation of GM alfalfa. Please educate yourself about this vital issue. I urge you to contact Tom Vilsack, the Secretary of Agriculture, and tell him that a total ban on GM alfalfa is necessary to ensure that organic farmers are able to maintain the purity of their crops.

Back in 2006, a group of farmers, environmental activists and the Center for Food Safety sued the USDA over their approval of Monsanto's Roundup Ready Alfalfa, which the group claimed was approved without the required safety studies. The suit was successful, the court ordered an immediate ban on any further planting of Roundup Ready Alfalfa, and the verdict was upheld on appeal. This past April, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and in June they ruled that the ban was too strict. Their decision allowed Monsanto to continue planting on a limited basis pending an in depth safety study by the USDA. While Monsanto claimed victory on the basis that the ban had been overturned, the Center for Food Safety pointed out that the ruling actually had more positive implications for the non GMO movement since the Supreme Court had acknowledged that GM contamination constitutes an ecological and economic threat.

Now, after completing the required safety review, the USDA has announced that it favors either total deregulation or planting with some regulation, far short of the total ban that many farmers and environmentalists had hoped for. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has stated his desire to reach a compromise between biotech industries and farmers whose livelihoods are threatened by GM contamination. However, in their proposed standards for the release of GMOs, the National Organic Coalition (NOC) makes it clear that farmers have to abide by the rules of nature, and when it comes to gene flow, nature doesn't compromise.

Gene flow is the process by which genetic material from one population is introduced and commingles with the genetic material of another population. This can happen in a number of ways. Most commonly, pollen or seeds are carried by insects, birds or wind over a certain distance and end up pollinating a member of the same species in a different location. Because these factors are so difficult to control, these plants are called “promiscuous” crops. Many of the most common GMO crops such as soybeans, canola and corn are promiscuous, and this has led to a high level of cross contamination in the industry. In one instance, supposedly organic soybeans that were shipped to Europe and tested on arrival turned out to have 20% GMO contamination. This phenomenon has led many organic industry advocates to protest that introduction of these GMO crops on any level essentially threatens the very existence of certified organic food.

In their paper "GMO Contamination Prevention and Market Fairness: What Will it Take?", the NOC makes a strong case for total bans on certain GMOs and heavy regulation of others from a strictly economic standpoint. Leaving aside the contentious issue of whether or not GMOs pose a threat to health, they argue that there are discernible and lucrative markets for GMO-free products, and these markets demand zero or near-zero levels of material derived from GM sources. Therefore, promiscuous crops such as GM sugar beets, corn, canola and alfalfa should be banned. Crops which don't pose such a distinct threat of cross pollination still need heavy regulation to keep seed stocks separate, create barriers or buffers between GM and non-GM crops and correct any accidental contamination, including reimbursements to farmers for lost revenue. The NOC argues that these responsibilities lie with the corporations who profit from GM technology, and the USDA has the authority to enforce these responsibilities.

The amount of regulation necessary to even mitigate GM contamination makes it clear that nature plays by her own rules. How can you stop a honeybee from flying farther than you want it to? How can you stop the wind from blowing pollen where you don't want it to go? Gene flow is a constant in nature. The only consistent physical barriers to gene flow are impassable mountain ranges, oceans, vast deserts, and, according to a recent study, the Great Wall of China. So to allow partial deregulation of a honeybee-pollinated crop is virtually the same thing as allowing the crop to be planted without any oversight whatsoever. It's just a matter of time before GM genes find their way into organic alfalfa. Tell Tom Vilsack: "To protect American farmers, we need a total ban, and we need it now."