Insights by Goldie
USDA: organic and biotech must “coexist”?

Sound Consumer | February 2011

by Goldie Caughlan
Quality Standards Specialist

Monsanto, the world’s biggest producer of genetically engineered (GE) seed, reportedly has spent half a billion dollars in the last decade on key political campaign contributions and targeted lobbying. Its money has opened many doors, from Clinton’s administration up through Obama’s.

The Obama administration definitely has given a boost to the continued growth of organic agriculture. His agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, also made some solid appointments in Kathleen Merrigan and Miles McEvoy. Together, they have improved funding for organic administration and research. But make no mistake about the administration’s primary allegiance.

It views “serious” American agriculture as having a biotech future. (Recent Wikileak information indicates targeted pressure from biotech on international trading partners.) I dunno — maybe we’re being distracted intentionally, soothed with the nice “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” campaign and the organic White House garden … so we don’t cause a fuss about biotech’s plans?

How else can we respond to the last two years of Obama appointments?

Biotech appointments

In 2008 the president appointed Tom Vilsack, founder and former chair of the Governor’s Biotechnology Partnership, as Secretary of Agriculture.

In July 2009 Obama appointed a former vice president of Monsanto, Michael Taylor, as senior advisor to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner. Six months later, Obama named him FDA’s Deputy Commissioner of Foods. (Google “Michael Taylor revolving door” for fun.)

In September 2009 Obama appointed Roger Beachy, Director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Beachy formerly was president of Danforth Plant and Science Center, a Monsanto “nonprofit” subsidiary.

Two months later, Rajiv Shah was appointed to head the U.S. Agency for International Development. Shah has promoted genetic engineering before Congress and succeeded in directing millions to GE research. He previously directed the Gates Foundation’s agricultural programs.

We’re way overdue for demanding an in-depth, congressional investigation of this bullying, lapdog USDA that appears to define its mission as serving Monsanto and promoting biotechnology at any cost.

To review biotech activities, see the Center for Food Safety’s website. Read the updates on Monsanto’s Roundup Ready™ (RR) sugar beets and its RR alfalfa, developed with Forage Genetics.

Monsanto petitioned USDA in 2005 to “deregulate” both crops, which USDA granted. GE sugar beets and GE alfalfa were approved without regulatory controls — with no federal oversight and no post-harvest analysis. It’s a “don’t look, don’t find” position in D.C.

The USDA process has been and continues to be single-minded in supporting GE agriculture. It’s approach to “due diligence” meant accepting the biotech industry’s research as fact, and not doing the required environmental impact statement (EIS). Shameful!

Thankfully, PCC supported the Center for Food Safety in suing USDA in federal court on behalf of a non-GE but non-organic alfalfa farmer, the Organic Seed Alliance, Sierra Club, and others. In both the GE sugar beet and alfalfa cases, USDA was criticized strongly, ordered to reinstate the regulatory status of the crops, and to conduct full environmental assessments.

Frankly, we’re way overdue for demanding an in-depth, congressional investigation of this bullying, lapdog USDA that appears to define its mission as serving Monsanto and promoting biotechnology at any cost.

USDA’s full EIS for RR sugar beets is due in May 2012. Meanwhile, GE sugar beets are regulated … sort of. When the court learned that USDA had permitted illegal harvest and storage of beet seedlings — it ordered the seedlings destroyed. USDA then pleaded in court, “save the GE sugar beet!” Unbelievable? We wish.

In December, USDA released its EIS on RR alfalfa indicating that in no case would the crop be banned. It invited public comments for 30 days and said its final decision on deregulation is coming after January 24, too late to report in this issue.

Secretary Vilsack, however, indicated three possible paths: 1) complete deregulation, 2) continued regulation, or 3) limited deregulation with restrictions and guidelines.

This intractable stance at USDA ignores reams of research documenting (a) infestations of “herbicide resistant” weeds, causing some farm fields to be abandoned, (b) no realistic means to avoid cross-contamination from GE alfalfa, and (c) accumulating research documenting serious health impacts from the Roundup herbicide.

The position of the National Organic Coalition and the Organic Trade Association is that “coexistence” (Vilsack’s term) is “not an apt description for the policy goals fundamental to discussions on de-regulating new biotech crops.” They suggest that “contamination prevention and compensation through meaningful coexistence” be used to reflect meaningful policy goals and objectives, where the patent owners — not the organic industry — bear the cost of crop contamination.

Inform yourselves, please, and weigh in (see Call the White House, Sound Consumer, February 2011). Rest assured, PCC is engaged. We believe that the only safe, sane future is an organic future.

More about: biotechnology, FDA, GE alfalfa, GE crops, GE sugar, herbicides, Monsanto, organic food, USDA

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