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Deregulation of genetically modified alfalfa stirs debate about ‘coexistence’

Buckeye Farm News

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced it would fully deregulate Round-Up Ready alfalfa, calling for “coexistence” between growers who use genetically modified crops and those who don’t.

Groups such as American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) and the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) welcomed the agency’s decision.

“Farmers need access to technology so that they can choose the option that is best for their farm,” said NCGA Chairman Darrin Ihnen. “Biotechnology can improve a farm’s efficiency and decrease the amount of chemical needed for that crop. We need choice to raise more food, feed, fiber and fuel for the world’s growing needs.”

Likewise, AFBF President Bob Stallman said farmers should have the choice to utilize the technology.

“The action is consistent with the department’s statutory authority and the United States’ commitment to a science and risk-based regulatory system for agricultural biotechnology. Decisions based on sound science are the underpinning of U.S. domestic and international biotech policy,” he said.

However, there was strong pushback from some organic groups who were either concerned about cross pollination oforganic crops by genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or were simply opposed to any use of GMO technology.Supporters of the GMO alfalfa argued that because the vast majority of alfalfa is harvested before it goes to seed, the risk of cross pollination would be unlikely. In addition, farmers planting the GMO alfalfa could utilize best practices to minimize pollination of neighboring crops.

Recognizing that GMO crops would likely continue to be approved by USDA, leading organic food businesses Organic Valley, Stonyfield Farm and Whole Foods came to the table to advocate for protections for their industry.

The fact that these groups would even consider “coexistence” with non-organic farmers drew accusations of betrayal from the Organic Consumers Association. The association’s president called the groups “a self-appointed cabal” that had decided to surrender.

Organic dairy farmer and Minnesota Farm Bureau member Emily Zweber took a different approach on her blog.

“The fact of the matter is the USDA has made their decision and is asking for coexistence between organic, GMO and non-GMO farmers,” she wrote. “The organic community is still actively demanding more protection for organic farmers. I respect those farmers that feel they need (GMO) technology to be profitable. I also worry that our future may be in flux, but that is why it is so important for us to keep having our voices heard and continue speaking out.”

Rejecting coexistence among farmers would be foolish, she wrote.

The USDA said it would take steps “intended to bolster the spirit of constructive coexistence among diverse segments of U.S. agriculture.”

“It is vital for USDA to strengthen the varied segments of agriculture through cooperation and coordination,” the agency said.

Those steps included implementing safeguards for the long term quality of alfalfa seed stored in USDA germplasm banks and expanding research such as a project to identify genetics that would make plants non-receptive to pollen from GMO crops.

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