A genetically modified (GM) strain of alfalfa, engineered to survive the application of Roundup herbicide, has been fully deregulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). In a separate move one week later, USDA allowed farmers to plant GM sugar beets while it finishes working on an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for that crop.

The GM alfalfa, produced by commercial agriculture giant Monsanto, has been approved for planting in the United States without restrictions. Earlier proposals from within USDA involved some limitations, designed in part to protect the integrity of organic crops from contamination. But these were not included in the final ruling, the timing of which will allow for the planting of GM alfalfa this spring.

The decision comes despite some 200,000 public comments that USDA received in response to its EIS draft on GM alfalfa. Most of these comments rejected the commercialization of the crop, according to the non-profit group Organic Seed Alliance.

Critics of so-called Roundup Ready crops, including alfalfa, are concerned about the potential for genetic contamination between GM and non-GM agriculture. They also describe as a likelihood the emergence of “superweeds” that, having grown resistant to current herbicides, will require the application of deadlier substances to be controlled.

These opponents warn of the impact on the integrity and expansion of organic/non-GM farming. The fears stem in part from the fact that alfalfa, a widely cultivated crop most often serving as livestock forage, is grown and harvested in rotation, meaning that alfalfa fields are often reseeded with other crops such as corn. This is because alfalfa seeds do not grow well in existing alfalfa fields, a trait called autotoxicity. Grown as hay on about 20 million acres, alfalfa is the fourth-largest U.S. crop by acreage, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Many leading interests in the organic food community, such as Whole Foods Market, Stonyfield Farm and Organic Valley, initially opposed the move to deregulate. These companies eventually met with USDA to find a way for organic farming and GM crops to coexist, once the option to ban GM alfalfa was removed by USDA. Some, including Organic Consumers Association director Ronnie Cummins in an article published online, criticized this result from the organic community, calling it capitulation.

Stonyfield Farm president and CE-Yo Gary Hirshberg responded to these criticisms in his own article, writing that there was “overwhelming political, legal, financial and regulatory support [for GM alfalfa], and thus the odds were severely stacked against” its being rejected. He claims that the organic parties involved are still adamantly against GM alfalfa. An open letter, signed by sustainable food movement pioneer Michael Pollan, CEOs of large U.S. organic food companies and organic advocacy groups, denounces the USDA decision and encourages the public to voice opposition to politicians.

The potential for this USDA action on GM sugar beets was indicated in an earlier WholeFoods report. Despite a court ruling ordering a cessation to their planting and the plowing under of current seedlings, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) announced that GM sugar beets can be planted in 2011, as the agency finishes its EIS statement on the Roundup Ready crop.

The Center for Food Safety has been involved in litigation on both the GM alfalfa and sugar beet fronts. Along with a coalition of other interest groups, it has promised immediate legal action this time around as well.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, April 2011 (online 2/11/11)