The Obama administration struck a blow against freedom for food and agriculture in late January, when the U.S. Agriculture Department deregulated genetically modified alfalfa seed. The agency's decision threatens to deprive farmers of the right to produce milk and meat free of genetic tampering, and it also threatens the right of consumers to purchase unadulterated food.
Then a week later, on Feb. 4, the Agriculture Department did it again, this time by partially deregulating sugar beet seed that had been genetically modified.
Both announcements were great news for Monsanto, which owns both types of GM seeds, as well as for Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, though it must be admitted that Vilsack was under tremendous pressure from conventional growers and the Obama administration. But Vilsack's trips on Monsanto corporate jets while governor of Iowa are well documented, and his "Governor of the Year" award from the Biotechnology Industry Association now seems well deserved. Both of Vilsack's recent deregulations were big victories for the biotech industry as a whole.
The USDA defied an order from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which said that an environmental impact statement was necessary before it could deregulate the sugar beet seed. USDA deregulated it anyway, and even if the agency is penalized for its decision, the seed will have been planted.
Nearly all the beet seed produced in the country -- seed for conventional and organic alike, both sugar and table beets -- is grown in Oregon's Willamette Valley. The reason is simple: It's the nation's best spot to grow beets, and chard, too, which cross-pollinates with beets. Once GM sugar beets are planted in the Willamette Valley, non-GM beet and chard plants will most likely be exposed to genetically modified sugar beet pollen.
In the case of alfalfa, even the nation's most powerful corporate-rights activist group -- also known as the U.S. Supreme Court -- recognized that deregulated GM alfalfa presented unacceptable risks to the environment, consumers and business. The court ruled last summer that USDA must complete an environmental impact statement before deregulating GM alfalfa seed.
In response to this ruling, USDA dutifully held a public comment period and drafted an environmental impact statement, which contained plenty of reasons to be wary of GM alfalfa. The agency then proceeded to ignore these warnings and grant full deregulation to GM alfalfa anyway.
In choosing this path, USDA decided against the more conservative option of partial deregulation, which would have provided mechanisms for keeping track of what happens to the genes that Monsanto will be releasing into the environment.
It's a matter of when, not if, GM alfalfa DNA starts showing up in the feed of organic dairy cows. According to the Associated Press Feb. 7, "Contamination of organic and traditional crops by recently deregulated, genetically modified alfalfa is inevitable, agriculture experts said, despite Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's recent assurances the federal government would take steps to prevent such a problem."
When the genes escape, organic regulators will find themselves in a tricky spot: Either revoke organic certification for the "offender" -- the victim of GM contamination -- or try to broaden organic standards to allow genetic modification. The latter would be a dream come true for the biotech seed industry, though it's hard to believe that organic growers -- responsible for the food industry's fastest-growing segment -- would tolerate such a move.
Tom Philpott, food editor at Grist.org, points out that we can find a bit of comfort in the fact that, unlike the deregulation of alfalfa, the deregulation of sugar beet seed is partial, meaning USDA is supposed to monitor where the GM beets are planted and make sure the genes don't spread. But it is likely the genes will spread, no matter how carefully USDA and Monsanto try to prevent it.
For now, the court system offers the best opportunity to block the proliferation of genetically modified plants and their seeds. The Center for Food Safety, based in Washington and San Francisco, may be an underdog against Monsanto and the Agriculture Department, but the nonprofit is, as they say in Las Vegas, a live dog that has pulled upsets before. The center has become active in both GM alfalfa and sugar beet litigation, and for now, it's the David that has the best chance of halting a corporate-governmental Goliath.
Ari LeVaux is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes about food and food politics from his home in rural New Mexico.