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Playing God, alfalfa style

Court cases and bans on genetically engineered alfalfa could soon come to a close

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- WHAT’S THE BEEF? :  Executives at Harris Ranch Beef Company objected to Cal Poly’s plans to allow sustainable food writer Michael Pollan to speak against corn-fed cattle production, without offering opposing views. -
  • WHAT’S THE BEEF? : Executives at Harris Ranch Beef Company objected to Cal Poly’s plans to allow sustainable food writer Michael Pollan to speak against corn-fed cattle production, without offering opposing views.
Just the words “genetically engineered” can conjure fantastic images of gigantic, mutated vegetables, or unnaturally
muscled farm animals. It can turn the most mundane crops into fodder for fights. Case in point: genetically engineered alfalfa.

 

A legal battle waged over genetically engineered alfalfa (also referred to as GE alfalfa or Roundup Ready alfalfa) for more than two years should soon come to a close. And, perhaps, a federal injunction that banned the planting of new GE alfalfa crops will be lifted. But fields of GE alfalfa can still be found.

 

Crops planted before the ban were allowed to remain intact, subject to some conditions. Most counties in California had at least one if not more GE alfalfa crops before the ban, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture—SLO County was one of them. Although the federal government never developed a more detailed list of where the crops were planted, one sure place where it was allowed to be grown was and is Cal Poly.

 

Some history: The Monsanto agricultural company first created GE alfalfa in the 1990s. In 2004, the company went to the USDA for deregulation—in other words, federal approval of the crop. During the federal approval process, GE alfalfa was met with 520 letters of opposition from individuals, environmental groups, and scientists, but only 137 letters in support. Regardless, the crop was deregulated. The Center for Food Safety, based in Washington, D.C., sued on the grounds that the USDA did not require an Environmental Impact Statement, which they said violated the National Environmental Policy Act. The court agreed and required USDA to prepare a full environmental statement and soon after implemented the injunction.

 

Some GE alfalfa was grown, and there are groups trying to allow it back on the market. Soon, maybe as early as the end of October, the USDA could appeal the injunction to the U.S. Supreme Court. The first draft of the environmental statement is expected to be released by the end of the year, after which there will be a 60-day comment period and a final determination of whether GE alfalfa poses any significant risk, which could also result in the ban being lifted.

 

Even before the official determination on GE alfalfa is made, many minds are already firmly set when it comes to genetically engineered crops, said Cal Poly professor and geneticist Jeff Wong. During an interview with New Times, Wong’s slouched posture and droll, almost rehearsed tone seemed to say, “Here we go again.” Wong said he was even reluctant to be interviewed because “I’ve done this before and then I get slammed.” In all, Wong said he wished the debate on genetic engineering was more of a discussion and less a series of attacks, but it’s never been that way.

 

Jesse Arnold of the group SLO GE Free said the worries about GE alfalfa stem from the fact that little is known about it.

 

“Those of us who question genetic engineering don’t think it’s been proven safe for human consumption,” Arnold said. “And also, we’d say, not proven safe for consumption by cattle. We don’t know what the effects are.”

 

Garrett Kasper, a Monsanto spokesman, said GE alfalfa crops planted before the injunction represent about 1 percent of all alfalfa crops grown in the country.

 

But without mandatory labeling, Arnold said people who don’t want to consume any GE products could lose that choice: “You can say there are those of us in the community that are completely opposed to genetically engineered crops and they’re being grown at Cal Poly, so there’s a very definite disagreement on this issue.”

 

Wong said GE alfalfa is just one of the latest targets in the brawls over genetic engineering. First there were tomatoes, he said. Then came soy beans, cotton, and canola, for example. A federal court also ruled last month that a USDA approval of Roundup Ready sugar beets without an environmental statement was unlawful.

 

The concerns surrounding GE alfalfa fall into a few categories:

 

• Potential cross pollination between GE crops and others, particularly organic crops.

 

• Increasingly resilient weeds that are resistant to pesticides and other chemicals.

 

• Humans unknowingly ingesting the crop when they eat unlabeled GE-alfalfa-fed livestock.

 

Wong was quick to acknowledge there remain unanswered questions about GE alfalfa, such as how to prevent cross pollination. Cal Poly’s alfalfa is unlabeled, he said, but officials there are legally allowed to omit labeling because the crop and farming equipment for it never leave campus. He said Cal Poly beef cattle and horses are fed GE alfalfa grown there but added, “Most likely the beef that you eat was fed Roundup Ready corn,” and other types of livestock are often fed other varieties of genetically engineered crops.

 

“If you don’t believe in [genetic engineering] I think that’s fine,” Wong said, “as long as you understand everything leading up to it.” One of his classes focuses on why certain agricultural technologies are developed in the first place.

 

GE alfalfa is created by adding a gene that protects the crop from Roundup herbicide. When such crops are sprayed with Roundup, the herbicide kills everything except the alfalfa, Wong said. But before the genetically engineered type, farmers would spray crops with more and more harmful types of chemicals, he said.

 

A proposed ban on genetic engineering went to county voters in 2004. Measure Q, as it was called, spawned from a strain of genetically engineered rice that state officials were considering for approval. The measure failed, but SLO County Executive Director Jackie Crabb believed only because the scope was too broad and it would have banned all genetically engineered “organisms.”

 

Among farmers, Crabb said, “The debate is split within the industry, as well.” Although the bureau’s position is that as long as “the science is there” farmers should be able to market such crops.

 

Staff Writer Colin Rigley is 100 percent natural. He can be reached at crigley@newtimesslo.com.

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