Biofortified on the Alfalfa EIS

Yesterday, the comment period for the Genetically Engineered Glyphosate-Tolerant Alfalfa Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) ended. Next to sugar beets, perhaps no other GE crop has received the kind of regulatory attention that this one has. Consequently, Anastasia and I decided to submit a joint comment to the USDA with Biofortified.org’s name attached to it. There has been much discussion as of late on this blog, spearheaded by Anastasia, about the issue of coexistence. While hyperbole about “kissing your organics goodbye” and meaningless distinctions such as “the first GE perennial field crop” (first perennial is papaya) are abound, some interesting things are actually going on.

In December, the USDA held a meeting with several stakeholders, and the transcript of this meeting can be found here. There are several ideas being floated around, and some familiar names. I’ll have more to say on this meeting later. But one statement struck a chord, and that was that there wasn’t enough time for discussion between the meeting and the end of the Alfalfa comment period. Of course, let’s ignore the fact that GE crops have been grown for 14 years, and that Alfalfa was first deregulated years ago. There has been plenty of time for discussion, but I guess no one has been trying to make this discussion happen in a productive manner until now. Kudos to the USDA for getting things going, though it be in the 11th hour for this particular transgenic crop.

The Alfalfa EIS for the first time gives an additional option of a coexistence plan that carries with is some geographical restrictions. To make sure that people could find it, they extracted the geographical restriction proposal so everyone could find it easily. When I read it, I was pleasantly surprised at how they divided states into different tiers, with no restrictions for the alfalfa in most states, and increasing restrictions depending upon the presence of non-GE growers and seed producers nearby.

While some were calling for shrill rejections of anything smacking of ‘co-existence’ whatsoever, Whole Foods on the other hand, publicly supported this proposal. Also see the Food Safety News article about it. Some company sources seem to not be pleased by the geographical restrictions, perhaps threatening to sue the USDA if adopted. Maybe it is a good compromise, as Calvin & Hobbes once said, because it “leaves everyone mad.”

When I thought about the geographical restriction idea, there were some things I liked about it, such as the potential to allow the crops to be grown in most places, while minimizing the impact to non-GE seed producers. For export markets, keeping confidence in the non-GE status of seeds and hay is important, particularly when the importing nations have not yet approved the transgenic events being grown here in the US.

There are also things not to like about it. For instance, 5 mile distances imposed do not take into account the different conditions from one location to another. While I understand that 5 miles is being chosen to make it beyond the range of the typical honeybee, as Anastasia demonstrated this overlooks existing research on rates of actual cross-pollination. drawing a 5-mile boundary around fields that are to be protected from any and all bees gives one grower inordinate rights to restrict the growing practices of others around them. I do not know what distances would be appropriate to require for such regulations if enacted, but when I read the language of the proposed rules closely, I noticed two things: treating pollen as an aggressor, and giving only one class of farmer the ability to halt the activities of another. I don’t have strong feelings over the trait or the proposed deregulation options, but given that this Alfalfa EIS if accepted has the potential to impact the regulation of many other GE crops down the road, I decided yesterday I wanted to whip up a quick comment.

Anastasia and I discussed these issues over the phone, and we both agreed to send in a joint comment. I wrote and submitted it as a PDF by email, and asked for confirmation that it was accepted just to make sure it was. (So far, no word back) Feel free to download and look at it in that form, or keep reading below. In the future, perhaps there will be more time to write draft comments and get more names attached to it.

So without further ado here comes Biofortified’s first comment on a pending Environmental Impact Statement!

Biofortified.org Comments on the Glyphosate-Tolerant Alfalfa Events: Final Environmental Impact Statement (December 2010) (Document ID APHIS-2007-0044-12532)

Biofortified.org is an independent group website devoted to providing factual information and fostering discussion about agriculture, especially plant genetics and genetic engineering. Karl Haro von Mogel and Anastasia Bodnar are the two Executive Editors, and this represents their opinions with regard to the proposed deregulation of Glyphosate-Tolerant Alfalfa.

We feel that although we do not have strong opinions about these transgenic events in particular, that this Environmental Impact Statement merits comment due to its focus on the important issue of coexistence between Genetically Engineered (GE) and non-GE forms of agriculture.

Pollen as an aggressor?

In debates over unintended admixture of GE and non-GE crops through cross-pollination, it is often suggested that the source of the pollen bears responsibility when this occurs. Opponents of GE crops vociferously argue that the farmer growing (or the organization that created) a GE crop should be held responsible when unwanted cross-pollination occurs. The argument is that if a non-GE farmer loses an economic premium via the presence of transgenes above a certain threshold, that this presents an undue economic harm. But we can easily envision potential future situations where this would result in the opposite of what might be intended by such a perspective.

Genetic engineering has the potential to make crops such as wheat and peanuts that are no longer allergenic, which can benefit people who are sensitive to these foods. But in these cases, cross-pollination from non-GE peanuts and wheat would not only cause economic harm to the growers of hypoallergenic specialty varieties, it could also be dangerous for consumers allergic to the proteins in the non-GE varieties. If you take the perspective that the source of the pollen is to blame, then you must conclude that non-GE wheat or peanuts must be responsible for any harm caused to such hypoallergenic varieties.

Issues of cross-pollination are not exclusive to debates over genetic engineering. In California, there are currently seedless mandarin orange farmers that are complaining about cross-pollination from nearby citrus groves. These particular mandarins produce seedless fruit without pollination, which fetches a price premium several times higher than mandarins with seeds in them. However, if a different variety of citrus trees is grown nearby, and bees bring pollen from these other varieties while visiting the mandarin flowers, the mandarins will develop seeds and lose their value. As a result, the mandarin growers are trying to prevent beekeepers from being able to operate nearby to protect their price premiums. Who is responsible in this case? Although it is more complicated as there are three parties instead of two, it does illustrate that we clearly need a wider discussion of the issue of cross-pollination within and without genetic engineering. Unless we can answer the question of how different citrus growers and beekeepers can coexist in California, we cannot answer the question of how to have long-term meaningful coexistence of GE and non-GE crops. What ethical principles we derive must apply broadly in many different situations.

Geographical Restrictions

The USDA has proposed as one of its deregulation options the possibility of restricting the growing and seed production areas of GE alfalfa to reduce the possibility of unwanted cross-pollination from GE to non-GE alfalfa seed supplies. Geographic restrictions may help maintain the ability of both seed systems to coexist. For those concerned about exporting non-GE alfalfa to nations that have not approved the GE varieties, it could also help maintain confidence in its non-GE status by those export markets. However, we foresee a problem with how the rules are being proposed that needs to be addressed.

According to the EIS, farmers growing GE alfalfa for hay or for seed cannot grow within certain distances of non-GE alfalfa fields:

“In Tier III states GT alfalfa for forage cannot be planted in counties where seed is grown (based on the 2007 Census of Agriculture).”

And

“GT alfalfa seed production will be limited to the geographic areas in Tiers II and III where the grower can maintain isolation distances of 5 miles between GT alfalfa and conventional alfalfa.”

The problem with this as it is worded is that it puts the responsibility for isolation entirely on one party. While this may at first make intuitive sense, let’s suppose that in a Tier II or III state, a particular region has an abundance of GE alfalfa being grown for forage or for seed, and no non-GE alfalfa is being grown nearby. Let’s say that all non-GE alfalfa fields are greater than 5 miles away, or are in another county. There would be no conflicts in this situation, which we believe is what is intended. However, should just one non-GE alfalfa seed producer or forage grower decide to start planting amongst the GE alfalfa growers or seed producers, a problem arises. However, if such a conflict arose it would be the established GE alfalfa operations (and not the encroaching non-GE alfalfa) that would be considered in violation of the rules and would need to shut down. This means that as the proposed regulations are worded, GE alfalfa growers and seed producers are afforded a second-class citizen status next to non-GE growers. Perhaps the USDA intends by the first quoted passage above to define the non-GE seed-production counties by the 2007 census alone, or change it with future censuses – which would have different implications for coexistence in either case. But it would take just one non-GE alfalfa forage field to shut down or cause a GE alfalfa seed production operation to move, and that sets a troublesome precedent.

Responsibility on both sides

It takes two gametes to make a seed. Likewise there are things that both GE and non-GE farmers can do to foster coexistence, as well as the USDA.

Both GE and non-GE farmers must share responsibility for unwanted cross-pollination. There are sensible strategies that the farmers can employ such as buffer strips and alternative flowers for bees to visit that they will prefer over alfalfa should unwanted flowering occur, for example. Genetic barriers to reproduction between GE and non-GE varieties can also be employed by breeders on both sides to limit successful pollinations. Unilateral freedom to operate and expect only your neighbor to change their operation must be resisted in either case. Communication between neighboring farmers is paramount.

The USDA can play a large role in this. While some question the USDA’s authority to regulate GE crops in anything other than an all-or-nothing approach, the USDA’s role in extension is clear and unambiguous. Improvements in extension and outreach education can help make coexistence work. We would go so far as to say that coexistence cannot work without adequate extension to prepare farmers for such conflicts as they may arise.

Conclusion

We appreciate being able to have the opportunity to comment on the deregulation of Glyphosate-tolerant alfalfa and can be contacted at contact @ biofortified.org if you would like to discuss our comments with us further.

Sincerely,

Karl Haro von Mogel

Anastasia Bodnar

Executive Editors, Biofortified.org

Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He currently works as a public research geneticist in Madison, WI. His favorite produce might just be squash.


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12 comments to Biofortified on the Alfalfa EIS

  • Eric Baumholder

    Re: “But one statement struck a chord, and that was that there wasn’t enough time for discussion between the meeting and the end of the Alfalfa comment period.”

    This is typical activist behavior. The period between the meeting and the end of the comment period is when they mobilize their constituents to fill the system with largely duplicate comments, and they want to go to court with the massive comment count behind them.

    Regulators typically grant them this wish. Which in this case signals that the activists will be back at the courthouse the moment the USDA announces something conclusive.

    This thing is not close to being over.

    By the way, I truly enjoyed your comment letter. Funny how sometimes a balanced approach hits much harder than something partisan.

  • dani

    i don’t want my food to be engineered in anyway. i don’t care what it looks like… i don’t care if it’s not going to be as delicious. i want the option of not having my food scientifically tampered with before it even grows.

    i want the option!

    that is all.

    • Sure, everyone should have their option. I always remember the time I was hanging out with a group of Muslims who kept halaal, and although I do not share their beliefs, I respect them. It’s their choice to do so, and mine to not. If anyone wants to stay away from whatever food, that’s their choice. There’s room in life for vegan, vegetarian, Kosher, Buddhist/Hindu/Jainism eating rules, or whatever, as well as organic/non-GMO food. I for one prefer my food modified, biotech or breeding, but I don’t see anyone out there trying to limit anyone’s options to anything (unless what you want is GM sugarbeet/alfalfa that is, in which case there are those who would do limit options). Where things get a bit tense is whenever takes their own opinion and dresses it up as fact, or in the current issues, decides that you can control what others are going to grow and eat.

      Although I guess it also depends on what you mean by ‘have the option’….for example, if there was a Muslim here in the middle of nowhere, Pa where I live, and they’re looking for some good halaal goat meat, they’ll have to find somewhere else to get it, because you won’t find that here, and no one has the obligation to bring it to them either. I guess it’s like how the Declaration of Independence says you get the pursuit of happiness, not happiness, which is a very important distinction. If one wants X, then for better or worse, regardless if they want ‘natural’ corn or Kosher beef, that’s not on anyone else to see that X is there. I mean, I want to try kangaroo stewed with oca & sunchoke on a bed of steamed teff with a chaya & moringa salad and a pulasan-rollinia-pacay smoothie for dessert, but I’ll just have make do with Subway until I can find it myself :)

    • Eric Baumholder

      I demand the right to know if my food was produced using migrant laborers from Mexico.

      I demand that donated blood be labeled so that if I need a transfusion, it will be blood from a white person.

      All I want is the option, isn’t that totally reasonable?

    • Dani,

      One could list a whole lot of attributes of a food and processes that went into making them, such as religious rules that Greg brings up, to social factors (both reasonable and parodical) that Eric mentions ever so delicately. I have had many a discussion with people over the issue of labeling, and I agree that everyone has the right to choose what to eat, but that does not translate into the State having an interest in mandating that every attribute and process be labeled. There is a lot of room for voluntary negative labeling (“Does not contain GE” or “non-GMO”), and if there are enough people that want to support such a scheme then it will persist along with Kosher and Halal. Check out the Non-GMO Project at http://www.nongmoproject.org for one example. While they are starting to slip into a food-fear advocacy of the products they certify, they have a good role they can play in this.

    • Jonathan

      dani

      How do you like your food mutated with X-rays or carcinogenic chemicals before you eat them? The majority of what you eat has undergone this sort of “scientific” treatment in the past at some point in order to make it look and taste as it does as opposed to what its wild relatives look like.

      I think you should stick to eating things you find in the woods if you want to avoid scientific tampering with food crops.

      Jonathan

  • Karl, thanks for getting this comment in right on time. I’m proud to have my name on this letter.

    Thanks, Eric. “Funny how sometimes a balanced approach hits much harder than something partisan.” Sad but true – here’s hoping some people at the USDA read our comment. Wouldn’t it be something if they contacted us? Maybe we need to form an NGO or something to counter balance groups like UCS.

    Dani, I agree that you should have the option to not eat “scientifically tampered” food (basically you should only eat wild berries and game, then, but ok). That’s actually what Karl and I are advocating in this comment and in many posts on Biofortified. There are ways to allow for many different farmers to grow many types of food, and we should strive to make that possible.

    • Update: I got a call this morning from a nice guy at the USDA from a message that I left about my comment. He was all prepared to write down my comment if it didn’t get to the right place. However, when I told him what email address I sent it to in PDF form, he said that then therefore they have it. So that’s a relief!

      It seems that the USDA is still taking comments in one form or another, people can find the number in the links above if they still want to say something!

  • Karl and Anastasia

    What are your thoughts on the unrestricted planting of GE alfalfa?

    Your audience want to know.
    P

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