Yesterday, the United State Department of Agriculture (USDA) fully deregulated Round Up Ready (Genetically Modified Organism or GMO) Alfalfa. The organic community has actively been trying to either stop the full deregulation or at the very least provide protection for organic farmers.
Let’s back this conversation up a bit and talk about why this even matters. The concern stems from the fact that alfalfa is pollinated by flying insects (such as bees) that can have a flight distance of over two miles. When insects transfer pollen from one plant to another they are transferring genes. But really a plant doesn’t have the new genes, just the seeds do. In any dairy operation I know alfalfa is cut LONG before seeds even think about forming. Actually, we try to cut before bloom. This is when the alfalfa is most nutritional for our cows. Want to learn more about how alfalfa grows? Read this blog post by a rancher friend of ours: Jeff Fowle.
So why the big fuss then? There are two camps: First camp is those that have a deep hate for all things GMO and will cry outrage at the mere mention of the thought, sometimes without fully knowing why. Second is the one that holds the most water: GMO contamination of alfalfa seed stock could be a real possibility if strict precautions are not taken. Up until today, and still on into the future, the organic community has been/is working to put policies/restriction/etc in place to minimize the risk of contamination of seed stock and to protect organic farmers. If seed stock isn’t protected the price to plant alfalfa seed could sky rocket, which would mean less planted or a huge increase in cost of production.
Yesterday, a well read consumer advocacy group for organics published a post that somehow said that Organic Valley and several other organic companies “sold out” to Monsanto (the makers of the GMO alfalfa technology). The crazy thing is, the USDA hadn’t even made their announcement yet. Here are the facts: after a court order, the USDA was ordered to conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). This report took several months and you can read it in entirety on the USDA.gov website. A public statement period was opened and people who wished to express concerns did. The organic community had a very strong voice. There were even meetings between stakeholders and the USDA to come to some “agreement” or coexistence. You can read about one such meeting on December 20th. Notice how the organic stakeholders are not selling out but strongly voicing their concerns and demands until the very end of the meeting (Not sure how that is selling out to Monsanto or to GMO’s). Yesterday, at least 30 days after the release of the report per law, the USDA made their final decision and fully deregulated the Round Up Ready Alfalfa. Here is an abbreviated version of the timeline.
The USDA is in a tough spot. Any way that they would have went would have resulted in an outcry. But like all of life, sometimes we just don’t get what we want. You can ask our three and two year olds about that life lesson. So now that the decision has been made we can either act like my children (crying, complaining, etc) or act like adults and try to make the best of it moving forward.
There are two things that we can do to continue to ensure the protection of organic farmers. First: We need to have Congress modify the Federal Crop Insurance Act. Currently, GMO contamination is not a covered item under that act. That simple move would put a lot of organic farmers at ease. Second: When the USDA made their announcement today, they also demonstrated that they are willing to work with non-GMO stakeholders. You can read a statement by USDA Secretary Vilsack here (it is only three pages of bullets lines and a good read, please read). In that statement two subcommittees are being reestablished: the National Germplasm Resources Advisory Committee (NGRAC) and USDA’s Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture. If you are an advocate for organics it is in your best interest to contact your national legislators and encourage them to demand the USDA to put a fair number of organic farmers and organic stakeholders on both those committees.
So in short (hah) what does this all mean for our farm? Nothing much at this point. Round Up Ready Alfalfa can be planted this spring. But again, we don’t let our alfalfa go to seed so that shouldn’t affect us. The real issue will be if seed stock are ever affected. If that does happen and alfalfa seed is priced out of profitability, we will switch to a different forage base (ie soybeans, clovers, turnips, etc). We are organic farmers, and we are very inventive and progressive.
And to clear up one misconception: Organic farmers are not allowed to use the GMO alfalfa. Not sure why people thought that? The USDA National Organic Standards remain the same. You will not find GMO’s in certified organic products.
Lastly, don’t take my thoughts that I am making lite of this whole issue. In fact it has been a major discussion topic for us for the past several years. The fact of the matter is the USDA has made their decision and is asking for a coexistence between organic, GMO and non-GMO farmers. The organic community is still actively demanding more protection for organic farmers. I respect those farmers that feel they need this technology to be profitable. I also worry that our future maybe in flux, but that is why it is so important for us keep having our voices heard and continue speaking out. Those who say there cannot be coexistence are foolish and have no better sense than my children. Come to think of it my children are smarter than that.
Zweber Farms is a 4th generation family operated organic dairy. We are proud Organic Valley farmer members and sell our milk under that label. We also specialize in sustainably raised beef, pork and chicken and sell it directly to customers in Minnesota.Visit our website to learn more, www.zweberfarms.com. Connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.