In Stunning Reversal, USDA Chief Vilsack Greenlights Monsanto’s Alfalfa

Government regulation of corporate practices has apparently been much on President Obama’s mind lately. He recent penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed vowing to review federal regulations to make sure they weren’t too onerous on business. In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, he illustrated his concern about the complexity of federal regulation by pointing out that two different agencies regulate wild salmon. “And when it’s smoked, I understand it gets really complicated,” he added. Ha, ha.

In other words, Obama is trying to establish himself as an eminently reasonable, pro-business sort of president — you know, not the sort of fellow who would let things like the Wall Street banking meltdown, the Upper Big Branch coal-mine disaster, the BP oil spill, or any other notorious lapse in government oversight stand in the way of the business of doing business.

Obama’s instantly famous “salmon joke” has me looking into how the government regulates salmon farms — those vast factory-style pens concentrated mostly off the coast of Washington state. I’m not done with research and won’t be until next week, as I’m preparing for a trip tomorrow to California to speak at the Edible Communities conference in Santa Barbara. The initial results of my research: government oversight of salmon farms consists mainly of encouraging them to produce as much salmon as possible.

This afternoon, my farmed-salmon research and trip prep were rudely interrupted by an unexpected regulation-related announcement: the USDA has decided to approve the use genetically modified alfalfa without any restriction.

The decision marks a sharp reversal: USDA chief Tom Vilsack had hinted strongly that he would place geographic restrictions on the growing of GMO alfalfa, to protect organic alfalfa growers from the threat of GMO contamination. He even floated a fancy name for the policy: “coexistence,” as in GMO crops and organic crops all just getting along. Even such a relatively mild restrictive policy would have broken with the longstanding USDA practice of giving GMOs a free pass.

Food-industry critics applauded. “I see real progress here,” NYU professor Marion Nestle wrote at The Atlantic. “At least — and at last — USDA recognizes the threat of GM agriculture to organic production.” She declared Vilsack’s even considering restrictions a “breakthrough.” The biotech industry, meanwhile, reacted to the specter of regulation of a GMO crop with fury, backed up by farm-state senators.

Thursday’s announcement marks a full USDA cave-in to the biotech industry’s demands — and evidence that Obama wants to be seen as a friend to business, even at the expense of the public interest.

In the interests of time, I’ve dropped in my take on GMO alfalfa from a few weeks ago, in which I argue that the stuff should be banned outright:

The industry is demanding that the USDA allow unrestricted planting of the alfalfa, which mainly serves as feed for cows. Alfalfa represents a lucrative opportunity for Monsanto, because it’s a massive crop, covering about 20 million acres, about 7 percent of U.S. cropland.

Yet there are a couple of glaring problems. Alfalfa is a prolific pollinator, meaning that GM alfalfa can easily cross-breed with non-GM alfalfa. If organic producers find their crop contaminated with GM material, they risk losing their organic certification and, likely, their livelihoods. The organic dairy industry, which relies on a steady supply of organic alfalfa, would also be imperiled.

The second problem is so-called “superweeds” — weeds that develop resistance to Roundup, Monsanto’s flagship herbicide. Such weeds are already rampant in the South, where Monsanto’s Roundup Ready cotton holds sway, and are moving into the Corn Belt, which is blanketed by the tens of millions of acres with the agrichemical giant’s corn and soy seeds. The rise of superweeds is unleashing a virtual monsoon of dodgy poison cocktails onto affected farmland.

Do we really want to subject organic growers and dairies to possible contamination and loss of their livelihoods, plus risk unleashing superweeds on another 20 million acres?

Evidently, for Vilsack, the answer is yes.

It’s worth checking out this recent Food & Water Watch report on the gusher of cash the biotech industry spends on D.C. lobbying. The industry spent more than a half billion dollars on lobbying between 1999 and 2009, FWW reports. In 2009 alone, the GMO giants dropped a cool $71 million pushing its agenda. It’s also worth noting the number of Monsanto-related people now working in key policy positions in the USDA.

Originally published on Grist

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