The biggest news in the food policy world this week was the USDA’s decision to fully deregulate Monsanto’s genetically engineered alfalfa. This particular strain of alfalfa—a hay which is used to feed cattle and horses and represents America’s fourth-largest crop by acreage—is resistant to Roundup, Monsanto’s herbicide. The USDA had three options regarding the alfalfa: fully deregulate, maintain the regulatory status, or limit the areas for planting genetically engineered seeds.
So why is this decision such a big deal? Basically, it will make it harder to distinguish GE alfalfa from regular alfalfa. Many people—particularly organic farmers—don’t want their alfalfa contaminated by Monsanto’s DNA, which will be likely to happen given the ease of pollination. There are very stringent federal regulations by which farmers have to abide in order to obtain and preserve organic status, and genetically engineered crops are banned.
Also, Monsanto has a patent on this special seed, which means they technically own the strain of GE alfalfa. In the past, they have not shied away from suing farmers if there’s evidence that their patented DNA is being used, even if it were by accidental contamination.
The USDA did say they are developing a facility in Idado to preserve GE-free alfalfa, and there will be two new committees forming: the Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture, and the National Genetic Resources Advisory Committee. This decision pits two of agriculture’s biggest industries—organics and biotech companies—against each other, and it will be interesting to unearth the repercussions of this decision and its precedents.
If you want to read more about the GE v. organic crop debate, check out this great piece by NPR on beet farmers (unfortunately not including Dwight from The Office) in the Williamette Valley. And here is a great letter from Gary Hirshberg, the President of Stonyfield, a major organic yogurt company.