Anti-biotech groups have staked their future not as stakeholders in the debate, but as avowed zero tolerance radicals for a science that the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate Norman Borlaug says is the only way to increase food production as the world runs out of available arable land.

GMOs, said Borlaug, are not inherently dangerous "because we've been genetically modifying plants and animals for a long time. Long before we called it science, people were selecting the best breeds."

Borlaug was called the father of the Green Revolution for developing new drought resistant and higher yielding grain varieties that were credited with staving off the starvation of 1 billion people.

The zero tolerance mantra radical organic farmers are espousing actually violates their own rules, according to University of California, Riverside botany professor Alan McHughen.

“The current ‘zero tolerance’ standard imposed by the organic industry is contrary to their own rules concerning other ‘undesirable contaminants’ such as synthetic pesticides and fertilizers,” said McHughen.

The UC professor points out that any food labeled organic can have a “generous tolerance” of 5 percent.

“This zero tolerance was established by a group of self-serving, non-elected organic industry representatives with no input from any democratically-elected officials or other outside interests,” said the professor. He called the zero tolerance policy “odious.”

“And, now they want the whole of society — including mainstream farmers — to live by the edicts of these unelected people serving their own financial and other interests.”

McHughen said if the organic industry would set a “reasonable standard for GM tolerance of say 5 percent or even 1 percent, “coexistence could exist.

Regardless of the direction USDA finally takes, RR alfalfa seed will be available for commercial sale at the end of January. The only questions are who will be able to buy it and where it will be allowed to be grown.

When the extremist Center for Food Safety convinced a federal judge in February 2007 that USDA-APHIS needed to develop an EIS to continue the sale of RR alfalfa, seed sales of one of the most promising biotech breakthroughs were halted. However, about 250,000 acres were planted before the judge order the sales halt.

These fields have been monitored over the past four years. Growers are reporting yielding 1 ton of hay per acre more from the herbicide-resistant alfalfa than conventional alfalfa. This translates into about $110 more in income per acre. Many growers also are reporting longer stand life and higher summer hay quality, both major cost savings.

The federal district court ban on the sale of RR alfalfa, which was overturned by a 7-1 vote of the Supreme Court, has cost America’s alfalfa growers $200 million in lost income due to their inability to plant RR alfafa.

U.S. sugar beet growers are closely watching the RR alfalfa saga unfold.

When USDA approved the sale of RR alfalfa in 2005, herbicide resistant sugar beets also were approved. The Center for Food Safety challenged the beet decision like it did with alfalfa.

However, before the radical group of lawyers could stop biotech sugar beet seed sales, 95 percent of the 1.3 million acres of U.S. sugar beet acreage were planted to glyphosate-resistant varieties.

However, it will likely be 2012 or later before USDA finishes an EIS on sugar beets, and that is putting sugar beet growers in a major bind.

Growers are trying to get the court ruling overturned. If they cannot, growers will be forced to switch back to conventional varieties for 2011. There is concern that there may not be enough conventional varieties to plant this year.

hcline@farmpress.com