Flash in the Pan 

E tu, beet root?

The Obama administration struck a blow to freedom in food and agriculture late January when the USDA deregulated genetically modified (GM) alfalfa seed. The agency's decision threatens to deprive farmers of the right to produce GM-free milk and meat, and deny consumers the right to purchase it. It also threatens the relevance of the USDA's organic program.

And then a week later, on Feb. 4, the USDA did it again, this time by partially deregulating GM sugar beet seed.

Both announcements were great news for Monsanto, which owns both types of GM seeds—and USDA chief Tom Vilsack as well, apparently. 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 was surely well deserved. Indeed, both of Vilsack's recent deregulations were big victories for the biotech industry. And the sugar beet move is especially chilling to those harboring fears of a GM planet. The USDA's deregulation of sugar beet seed defied an order from a San Francisco District Court demanding an environmental impact statement (EIS) be produced before USDA deregulated the seed.

USDA deregulated it anyway. And even if the agency is ultimately penalized for this intransigence, the seed will have been planted, which is a significant gain of ground for GM agriculture lovers.

Nearly all the beet seed produced in the country—seed for conventional and organic alike, sugar and table beets both—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). If GM sugar beets are planted in the Willamette Valley, non-GM beet (and chard) plants will most likely be exposed to GM sugar beet pollen, and growers may be forced out or overtaken, voluntarily or otherwise, by genetically modified sugar beet DNA.

In the case of alfalfa, even the 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. Last summer the court ruled that USDA must complete an EIS before deregulating GM alfalfa seed.

In response to this ruling, USDA dutifully held a public comment period and drafted an EIS, 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.

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF USDA.GOV
  • Photo courtesy of USDA.gov

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.

Such oversight, at a minimum, would be a really good idea, since GM alfalfa is to organic dairy what the Trojan Horse was to Troy. Alfalfa is pollinated by bees, which have a five-mile range. When non-GM alfalfa is pollinated with pollen from GM alfalfa plants, seeds containing the lab-modified DNA sequences are produced. Alfalfa is a perennial that can generate 15,000 seeds a year and live for decades, even centuries. Once GM pollen is out of the bag, putting it back in would be like repacking Pandora's box. It's not going to happen.

It's a matter of when, not if, GM alfalfa DNA starts showing up in the feed of organic dairy cows. When the genes escape, organic regulators will find themselves in a tricky spot: either revoke organic certification from the "offender"—who's actually a victim of GM contamination—or broaden organic standards to allow GM in. The latter would be a dream come true for the biotech seed industry. Thus, GM alfalfa may represent a foot in the door of the coveted organic market—the food industry's fastest-growing segment.

The USDA's deregulation of GM alfalfa and sugar beet seed threatens the rights of those in the agriculture business to produce meat and dairy that's free of the mark of genetic modification, and all of the unknown possibility that mark entails. Once the first crop of GM alfalfa goes to seed, the prospects of a future with non-GM meat and dairy will dim considerably. And once the GM sugar beets go to seed, finding non-GM beets or chard will become difficult if not impossible.

It appears USDA's goal was getting both alfalfa and sugar beet seed planted as soon as possible. It was able to do so legally, if sleazily, with alfalfa, but not with sugar beets. Perhaps the urgency, from Monsanto's perspective, is that Vilsack only has two more years of guaranteed influence. After the 2012 election, who knows? Since beets take two years to flower, Vilsack's golden window closes this spring. Planting now gives the beets enough time to contaminate the Willamette Valley with their pollen before the possible arrival of a new USDA chief, who might not be in Monsanto's front pocket.

While GM alfalfa threatens to blanket the country with GM pollen that will eventually find its way into dairy and meat supplies, GM sugar beet seed is an efficient surgical strike at beet central. In both cases, more genetically modified DNA is poised for injection into the food chain and the environment.

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 will monitor where the GM beets are planted and ensure the genes don't spread.

But the genes will spread, no matter how carefully USDA and Monsanto try to prevent it. The genes will spread because that's what genes do.

Those who oppose the planting of GM alfalfa and sugar beet seeds have two significant milestones to consider in their planning. The first is preventing the seeds from being planted. If that fails, the next and final chance will be to make sure the plants are destroyed before they flower. After that, once the pollen gets released, game over.

The court system offers the best legal opportunity to achieve one of these defensive stops, and that possibility is real. The Center for Food Safety (CFS) may be an underdog on the GM sugar beet and alfalfa fronts, but the nonprofit is, as they say in Vegas, a live dog, and has pulled upsets before—including against the Vilsack USDA. The CFS is active in both GM alfalfa and sugar beet litigation, and contributing to its legal fund probably provides the most bang for your buck short of buying land upwind from a Monsanto field and spraying obscene amounts of nasty pesticides on windy days, and then suing Monsanto for stealing the chemicals that land on its plants.

That, of course, might be fun, but my money's on CFS. Less potential downside—blowback, as it were.

Whatever your means, if you're concerned about genetically modified DNA in your food, it's time to get to work.

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