Next Up, Alfalfa Allergies? USDA greenlights Monsanto’s RoundUp Ready Alfalfa
Anyone familiar with the AllergyKids Foundation knows that the recent introduction of genetically engineered proteins into our food supply is of concern to our organization. With the introduction of this new technology in the 1990s and the novel, patented proteins that these agricultural products now contain, foreign proteins and novel allergens now exist in our food supply that weren’t there fifteen years ago. And today, these novel proteins and allergens are now found, unlabeled, in the food that we feed our children.
And while correlation is not causation, the body of a child with food allergies sees food proteins as “foreign” and launches an inflammatory response to drive out the “foreign invader.” With the introduction of foreign proteins into our food supply in 1994 through the genetic engineering process, novel and foreign proteins have been introduced into our food that weren’t there when we were children.
So when it recently came to our attention that the USDA had been considering two potential decisions on the introduction of a new biotech crop, Monsanto’s genetically engineered RoundUp Ready alfalfa, which is used as a livestock feed and given to our nation’s dairy cows and cattle, we got involved and wrote a letter to the Secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture.
Given the pervasive planting of genetically engineered crops in the U.S. since their introduction just over fifteen years ago– 93% of soy, 86% of corn, 93% of cotton and 93% of canola seed planted were genetically engineered in the U.S. in 2010 – the option of an outright ban of this new crop was not on the table, according to Whole Foods and others in the industry. Instead, the USDA presented the industry with only two options that they were considering– deregulation and deregulation with restrictions.
According to the New York Times, this announcement came on the heels of a December 2010 statement in which the USDA shocked the farming industry by saying that it may impose geographic restrictions on the cultivation of biotech alfalfa, the controls meant to limit the crops’ cross-pollination with conventional and organic varieties. In other words, it appeared that the USDA considered the cross-contamination issue to be the equivalent of the second-hand smoke of agriculture.
So this week’s decision marked a stunning reversal of the more measured approach that Vilsack appeared to be taking in December, when the USDA talked about considering the impact of the GM crop on other sectors of agriculture. But that was before he faced an uproar by the GM industry and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal for playing nice with organic farmers
And while we don’t agree with the New York Times statement in which they claim, “There is no question about the safety of Roundup Ready alfalfa, which uses well-established bioengineering techniques,” (since according to a 2002 government meeting of the Food Biotechnology Subcommittee of the Food Advisory Committee in which the committee’s acting chair, Edward N. Brandt, Jr., M.D., Ph.D., said “Of course, we haven’t worked into this some kind of test for allergencity, per se”), we do share the economic concern that “organic farmers have long complained that biotech pollen could drift into their fields, causing them to lose exports to regions wary of genetic engineering, like Japan and Europe.”
So what’s the potential impact? Sam Fromartz, author of Organic Inc. sums up some of the consequences that we may see in our food supply as this bioengineered livestock feed is introduced:
1. Less organic forage crops. Why would any farmer plant organic alfalfa when he knows a farmer nearby is planting GM alfalfa? Not only will his costs be higher in terms of cultivating an organic crop, but the possibility now exists that the crop will not be organic once it’s harvested. So why bother?
2. Fewer organic dairy farmers. Organic dairy farmers plant alfalfa in fields where their cows graze, but they may also buy hay for winter. With fewer sources of organic forages, costs for organic dairy farmers will rise. What’s the smartest decision here: Reduce your risk by avoiding the organic market altogether. Or maybe buy your organic forage crops from China, as we’ve seen with soybeans.
3. Higher prices for organic consumers. If the supply of organic forages falls, the cost will rise. Organic dairy farmers will either be squeezed and go under or organic milk prices will rise. The impact: higher prices at the checkout counter for moms and dads buying organic milk for their kids. (Or maybe we’ll see more imports of organic milk powder from nations with stricter GM controls to keep the market going.)
4. Less investment in organic meat. Organic meat has been a fast growing sector of the market, but why would anyone invest in this business if you could be disqualified by contaminated feed? The rational business decision would be to ignore the U.S. and invest in organic operations outside the U.S. — Uruguay anyone?
5. Fewer conventional export opportunities. The contamination of rice fields by GM test plots in Louisiana led to multimillion dollar law suits. Why? Conventional rice farmers lost markets in countries that didn’t want to import GM rice. The same could be true of forages — that is, unless the U.S. is successful in getting the rest of the world to buy GM crops as the State Department is trying to do.
And we’d like to add one last potential impact:
6. The alfalfa allergy. Given the fact that according to the Food Biotechnology Subcommittee of the Food Advisory Committee, tests have not yet been developed to determine the allergenicity of the novel proteins created in the bioengineering process used to create genetically engineered crops like Monsanto’s RoundUp Ready alfalfa, it would not come as a surprise to see a sudden surge in the rates of alfalfa allergy in children and adults, much like the sudden increase seen in the number of Americans developing the soy allergy, shortly after Monsanto introduced their genetically engineered, RoundUp Ready soybeans in the late 1990s.