Despite impassioned lobbying from organic consumers and organic dairies and grass-fed beef ranchers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on January 27 approved the use of genetically engineered alfalfa created by Monsanto. As a result of the deregulation, the chemical company’s Roundup Ready alfalfa—which can withstand heavy spraying of Monsanto’s Roundup pesticide—will be available for unlimited planting this spring.

Alfalfa is one of the most widely used forage crops for dairy and beef farmers around the world. The ruling by USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack provided no restrictions against planting GMO alfalfa next to organic crops. This substantially increases the risk of cross-contamination given that alfalfa is pollinated by bees and other insects.

The USDA’s decision ignited an outcry within the U.S. organic community. "Organic and others are now left, once again, having to take all the precautions while biotech takes little responsibility," said  Liana Hoodes, director of the National Organic Coalition.  

“We’re disappointed with USDA’s decision and we will be back in court representing the interest of farmers, preservation of the environment and consumer choice” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director for the Center for Food Safety.

“Last spring more than 200,000 people submitted comments to the USDA highly critical of the substance and conclusions of its Draft EIS on GE Alfalfa,” added Kimbrell.  “Clearly the USDA was not listening to the public or farmers but rather to just a handful of corporations."

Alfalfa decision threatens growing organic industry

As Christine Bushway, executive director of the Organic Trade Association (OTA), sees it, deregulation of GMO alfalfa threatens the growing organic industry. “Preserving market and farmer choice and agricultural diversity are central to USDA’s mission and the future of rural American livelihoods," Bushway said. "This failure to do so will make it increasingly difficult to meet the growing demand for U.S. organic crops.”

According to the OTA, the U.S. organic industry generates $26.6 billion a year in product sales and employs tens of thousands of people around the country. The organic industry supports at least 14,540 family farms operating in rural areas.

"Unrestricted commercialization of genetically engineered crops—86 percent of the country’s corn and 93 percent of soybeans—has resulted in widespread unlabeled presence of GE (genetically engineered) materials in mainstream food products unbeknownst to the average consumer," the OTA reports. According to California’s Department of Food and Agriculture, at least 70 percent of processed foods in American supermarkets now contain GMO ingredients.

More than 20 million acres of alfalfa are grown in the United States, making it the country’s fourth-largest crop by acreage, behind corn, soybeans and wheat, The New York Times reports. About 1 percent of alfalfa grow in the United States is organic.