UPDATE Jan. 28 2011: Obama Believed to Be Behind GMO Alfalfa Push
UPDATE Jan. 27 2011: USDA Approves Gene-Altered Alfalfa, Fails to Protect Organic Farms
RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Despite rough economic times, more and more people are buying organic, not just to protect the planet, but also to keep their families safe from toxic pesticides linked to ADHD, autism, and certain cancers, among other things. Many also choose organic to keep genetically engineered (GE) ingredients off of their family's plates (certified-organic food cannot contain GE ingredients). Also called genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, GE food has been linked to infertility, allergies, and other serious health problems. But even as more consumers vote with their dollars for organic, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is poised to approve GE alfalfa, perhaps as early as next month.
Like GE corn and soy, which are already ubiquitous in the nonorganic food supply, GE alfalfa would involve farmers using alfalfa seeds that have been genetically manipulated to withstand dousings of the chemical Roundup (glyphosate)—so-called Roundup Ready seeds. Researchers from USDA and Purdue University have found glyphosate to be quite dangerous, leaving plants susceptible to disease and unable to take up from the soil trace minerals that humans need to survive. The overuse of Roundup has also led to the emergence of superweeds resistant to the chemical weed killer, and opponents of GE crop use say introducing another Roundup Ready crop will only worsen the superweed problem. There's also the issue of cross-contamination, meaning that the genetic material from GE alfalfa could cross-pollinate and contaminate organic alfalfa used in organic dairy and grass-fed beef operations. "Alfalfa is an incredibly important feed for animals," explains Patty Lovera, assistant director of the consumer watchdog group Food & Water Watch. "Maybe you don't eat alfalfa sprouts, but you might eat something that eats alfalfa."
Organic advocates say approval of GE alfalfa also opens the door to Americans' being exposed to even more GMOs in the food supply. For instance, aside from being fed to animals, GE alfalfa could also contaminate organic honey supplies, since bees forage in alfalfa and create nectar that in turn becomes honey for human food. And organic farms, which depend on organic alfalfa, will be vulnerable to contamination. "People who eat organic foods should care about this because alfalfa is a vital crop to organic farmers," explains Ken Roseboro, editor of The Organic & Non-GMO Report. "It is an important feed for organic dairy cows, and organic farmers use alfalfa in their crop rotations to build soil fertility. GE alfalfa is a huge threat to that."
THE DETAILS: The USDA is set to make a decision regarding the approval of GE alfalfa anytime after the public comment period ends February 16, and experts following this closely believe it will get approval. "Yes, the USDA is going to approve GE alfalfa. The question is whether they will approve it without restrictions or with restrictions," says Roseboro. In fact, this is the first time the agency is considering placing restrictions on a GE crop. (For instance, GE corn, soy, cotton, and canola have no restrictions, and can be planted anywhere; they've been threatening organic and non-GE crops for years.) The restrictions under consideration, Roseboro says, would include limiting plantings of GE alfalfa to certain states, where farmers would be required to establish a five-mile isolation zone from conventional or organic alfalfa fields. This has advocates on both sides of the issue fuming. Creators of the GE seed and chemical pesticide system are reportedly majorly ticked off over USDA's inclusion of restrictions to help protect organic farmers, even though organic advocates don't think the restrictions will fully protect organic crops. "Biotech groups are angry that this coexistence initiative launched by USDA could signal a change in regulatory policy toward GMOs by the agency," says Roseboro. "Right now, there is very little or no regulation on GE crops, and biotech companies and supporters don’t want that to change."
On the other hand, while such a signal could be good news for protecting the organic market, organic food and farming advocates worry that there's no way for organic and GE crops to coexist without pollinating each other. "One big problem with alfalfa is that it grows wild along roadsides, in ditches, and in yards," says Roseboro. "Experts believe that when Roundup Ready [GE] alfalfa is introduced, it will pollinate these wild populations and they will become Roundup Ready, also creating an even greater contamination risk to organic and non-GMO alfalfa."
WHAT IT MEANS: GE crop systems rely on the application of toxic pesticides, in increasingly higher doses. And more glyphosate in the environment is bad news. Glyphosate kills beneficial soil life that helps healthy plants fight off disease. Glyphosate also hampers a plant's ability to take up vital minerals. Crops defunct in important minerals also affect humans—we need some of the same nutrients from our foods for our bodies to function properly. Not only that, systemic pesticides like Roundup wind up inside the food we eat, and also contaminate water supplies. About 90 percent of supermarket foods that isn't certified organic contains GE ingredients from corn, soy, and canola; introducing GE alfalfa into the mix make it even harder for consumers to avoid GE-free food.
Here's how to keep GE alfalfa out of U.S. fields—and off your menu.
• Demand organic. As more people buy organic food to avoid pesticides and GE ingredients, it sends a powerful message to farmers and food marketers.
• Sign on for safer food . People concerned about protecting organic are signing on to numerous consumer and food safety watchdog groups' petitions, including ones from Food & Water Watch, Center for Food Safety, and the Institute for Responsible Technology.
• Go GMO free. The number one way to avoid GMO, or GE, ingredients is to avoid eating processed foods, and instead focus on eating whole, organic food. Another option is to look for certification by the Non-GMO Project, but keep in mind that this certification doesn't indicate anything about the use of pesticides. For more details, check out the Rodale.com GMO-Free Challenge to see how Rodale.com team members kept GMO ingredients out of their bellies.