USDA Approves Three New GMO Crops

In the space of two weeks in late January and early February, the USDA approved three genetically modified (GM) crops: Roundup Ready alfalfa, Roundup Ready sugar beets, and a “biofuels corn.” In approving these crops, the agency ignores the public opposition to GM crops, the courts, and even dissenting voices within the conventional agricultural industry.

Roundup Ready alfalfa took the battle over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to a new level because alfalfa is the first perennial crop to be genetically engineered, and because of its important role in every aspect of agriculture. Alfalfa is the nation’s fourth largest crop, planted on over 21 million acres. Alfalfa hay is used for livestock feed, and alfalfa meal is used as a soil amendment by many produce farmers. Alfalfa sprouts constitute an important sector of the salad market, and the crop plays a major role in honey production nationally. Notably, the vast majority of alfalfa, even conventional alfalfa, is grown without any herbicides. Thus, the release of Roundup Ready alfalfa represents a massive blow to sustainable agriculture, without any justification other than increased profits for Monsanto from the tech fees and increased sales of Roundup.

USDA’s earlier attempt to approve GM alfalfa had been blocked by a lawsuit brought by the Center for Food Safety and other nonprofits. The court ordered USDA to conduct an “environmental impact statement” or EIS to address the potential environmental and social impacts of GM alfalfa prior to approval. While conceding for the first time that GM contamination of non-GM crops is a major problem in the US, the EIS still concluded that the agency should allow at least some commercial plantings. After discussing options for partially regulating planting of GM alfalfa, USDA announced that it was completely deregulating the crop in January 2011.

Just a few days later, USDA issued a decision to allow the U.S. sugar beet industry to continue growing Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” sugar beets, in defiance of another court order. In 2010, a federal district judge had found that growing the GM sugar beets was likely to cause irreparable harm to people and the environment, and “may cross-pollinate with non-genetically engineered sugar beets and related Swiss chard and table beets.”

As in the alfalfa case, the court ordered USDA to prepare an EIS before allowing the GM sugar beets to be grown. In spite of that court order, USDA issued a far less comprehensive “Environmental Assessment,” claiming it adequately considers the damage the GM sugar beets are likely to cause, and concluding that Roundup Ready sugar beets could safely be partially deregulated.

Then came the third approval, of “biofuels corn” created by Syngenta. The GM corn – known as Event 3272 – is genetically engineered to contain high levels of a heat-resistant and acid-tolerant enzyme derived from exotic, marine microorganisms. The enzyme breaks down starches into sugars, the first step in conversion of corn to ethanol. At present, ethanol processors add a version of this enzyme for the same purpose. Consumer advocates worry that the enzyme may cause allergic reactions if it contaminates food-grade corn, while agronomists have suggested that unharvested corn will deposit large quantities of this enzyme in the soil, which could adversely affect soil carbon cycling.

The biofuels corn faced opposition even from the conventional corn industry. Five major U.S. trade associations — the Corn Refiners Association, National Grain and Feed Association, North American Millers’ Association, Pet Food Institute and Snack Food Association — whose member companies store, handle, process and export corn and corn products, opposed the complete de-regulation of this GM corn.

In a joint statement, the organizations urged USDA to reconsider its decision and called on USDA to undertake a comprehensive analysis and, in the meantime, retain regulatory oversight of the biotech corn’s production and distribution. Notably, the joint statements stressed that the organizations support biotechnology in general, but they still opposed this new corn. Yet USDA ignored the concerns of even these conventional industry groups and totally deregulated the biofuels corn.

All three approvals came at a time when the anti-GMO community believed it was making headway. In December 2010, the acknowledgment in the USDA’s EIS for GM alfalfa that cross-contamination is a problem provided hope that perhaps the USDA was listening. Several organic companies and organizations entered into negotiations with USDA and the biotech industry on possible limits on GM alfalfa planting. But then came these rapid-fire approvals that ignored not only the organic community’s protests, but the courts and even the conventional industry’s concerns. It would appear that the Obama Administration is intent on promoting the spread of GM crops as quickly as possible, until the point of no return is reached due to cross contamination.

We need to reach out to all of the people who are impacted: organic farmers and consumers, the rural communities who face increased health problems from the increased spraying of glyphosate, “average” Americans facing health problems because they eat foods containing GMOs, and conventional farmers who are being driven out of business by tech fees for technology that doesn’t truly benefit them or their customers. Every American will pay the price for the USDA’s approval of GM alfalfa and sugar beets, just as they have already been paying the price for GM corn and GM soy. We oppose GM crops because they benefit only the companies who make them, at the expense of Americans’ environment, economy, and health.