Secretary of Agriculture’s Tom Vilsack’s effort to broker a Roundup Ready alfalfa/biotech peace treaty between the American agricultural majority and fringe organic and anti-GMO activists is not sitting well with either side.

Radical Ronnie Cummings of the Organic Consumers Association says “hell no to the idea of coexistence” with Monsanto or any major agribusiness corporation.

Mainstream agriculture is equally bewildered by, and skeptical of, USDA’s efforts to broker an 11th hour peace in a dispute that has been going on for 46 months for Roundup Ready alfalfa and for more than a decade with other biotech crops.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) has written Vilsack expressing in the “strongest possible terms” its concerns regarding “unilateral actions” USDA is poised to take in the name of coexistence.

In a letter signed by Sharon Bomer Lauritsen, BIO executive vice president, food and agriculture, she said the first meeting of both sides on Dec. 20, “only served to heighten our concerns.”

The implications of USDA’s actions on RR alfalfa “would sweep far more broadly across the face of American agriculture, undermining a twenty-five year track record of science-based technological innovation that has brought significant benefits to growers, consumers and the environment without any evidence of adverse effects to health, safety or the environment.”

BIO supports coexistence in American agriculture, according to Lauritsen, who acknowledged the dramatic growth of organic farming. However, she also pointed out that none of the “rigorous health or environmental safety requirements” that USDA is attempting to apply to agricultural biotechnology are imposed on organic agriculture.

BIO charged that USDA is attempting to regulate coexistence under statutes that are not only ill suited, but legally incapable, and the department is “exceeding its statutory authority.

“Indeed the department appears to have lost sight of certain fundamental legal and scientific principles,” said Lauritsen.

“No court has ever directed USDA to regulate coexistence or change its coexistence policy, nor has any court held that a biotechnology-derived crop has presented a risk to health, safety or the environment,” she added.

The U.S. has worked long and hard to successfully establish and maintain a science-based regulatory process for agricultural biotechnology and the benefits of those efforts are irrefutable, she wrote.

“Now, as the rest of the world begins to recognize the benefits of this technology, is hardly the time to undermine the U.S. regulatory process in reliance on inapposite court decisions, market-based perceptions and false assumptions. We can ill afford to subject American agriculture and consumers to the same paralyzing effects as those imposed on European growers and consumers through the adoption of so-called “precautionary” principles rooted in myth, falsehood and innuendo,” she said.

She added that if USDA continues on its path, it would “totally undermine U.S. international trade interests and long-standing positions of the U.S. government in the World Trade Organization, International Plant Protection Convention and Biosafety Protocol, among others.”

Now that the EIS has been prepared for glyphosate-tolerant alfalfa, “it is time for USDA to prepare its record of decision and authorize full deregulation of this important crop as soon as possible,” she said.

Others are calling USDA’s efforts a stunning socio-economic regulatory effort that is moving USDA away from science-based decisions to pandering minority interests to the detriment of the majority of the nation’s farmers and ranchers.

If this precedent-setting effort succeeds, the Wall Street Journal said “it could permanently politicize a system that is supposed to be based on science.”

Orchestrating this coexistence initiative is USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, who helped develop the department’s organic labeling guidelines. Many view this as putting her on the side of the organic/anti-GMO element that wants at least to place untenable isolation and geographic planting restrictions on RR alfalfa.

EIS alternatives for Vilsack

The EIS released just before Christmas identified three alternatives for USDA to select from when it finally releases alfalfa seed for sale toward the end of January. Vilsack has rejected an outright ban on RR alfalfa, which leaves him two alternatives he called "preferred":

• Allow the sale of RR alfalfa without restrictions

• Allow RR alfalfa sales with restrictions like banning alfalfa forage production in RR alfalfa seed producing counties and creating a 5-mile buffer zone between RR alfalfa seed fields and non-biotech seed fields.

The 5-mile ban is more than twice the distance (2 miles) RR alfalfa seed producers have voluntarily agreed upon to placate anti-GMO critics and organic growers and almost incalculably different from what is now required for certified seed fields (165 feet).

This 5-mile buffer zone between RR seed fields and organic or conventional fields targets California, Arizona Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. RR seed fields would also be identified by GPS and included in the annual report to USDA. Location data will be made publicly available.

The proposed ban on alfalfa forage production in any county where RR alfalfa seed is produced would disenfranchise 20 percent of the nation’s alfalfa production area from planting RR alfalfa.

It would have even greater impact in the West, prohibiting 50 percent of the alfalfa acreage from planting the herbicide-resistant alfalfa because of seed production of herbicide-resistant seed.

The baffled agricultural majority became even more mystified at this sudden turn of events at USDA during the first coexistence meeting in Washington, D.C., when Vilsack reportedly dismissed the importance of science, saying everyone can provide science to support their views.

Vilsack's efforts to broker a treaty and his comments about science being subjective “generated tremendous interest,” admitted the secretary, in a statement issued shortly after the first meeting in Washington when both sides reacted to his plan.

“As a regulatory agency, sound science and decisions based on this science are our priority, and science strongly supports the safety of GE alfalfa,” Vilsack.

However, the secretary added in his statement that the “clash” between the rapid adoption of GE crops and the rapid expansion of organic and other non-GE products has led to litigation and uncertainty. He is hoping a USDA brokered truce can keep the issue out of the courtroom. However, anti-biotech activists have vowed that if they do not agree with what USDA decides on RR alfalfa, they will file another lawsuit.

Most in agriculture believe the anti-GE activists want nothing short of a ban on GE crops. To agree to anything less would negate their radical anti-biotech position of the past decade.

Nevertheless, Vilsack says “a solution that acknowledges agriculture’s complexity while celebrating and promoting its diversity ... is a better way.”

Vilsack’s goal is to create a “new paradigm based on co-existence and cooperation.”

The call for a new paradigm met with this reaction from Cummings: “There can be no such thing as ‘coexistence’ with a reckless and monopolistic industry that harms human health, destroys biodiversity, damages the environment, tortures and poisons animals, destabilizes the climate, and economically devastates the world's 1.5 billion seed-saving small farmers.”

Zero tolerance radicals

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