THE U.S. Department of Agriculture is entering uncharted waters with its proposed conditional deregulation of genetically modified (GM) alfalfa.
The agency has the authority to regulate crops under the Plant Protection Act. If sufficient scientific testing backs the safety of a product, the act requires that USDA deregulate the product and allow planting without restrictions.
After USDA issued its environmental impact statement on Roundup Ready alfalfa, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called for producers of GM, non-GM and organic crops to coexist and scheduled a stakeholder meeting for Dec. 20.
After the private meeting conducted by Vilsack and USDA deputy secretary Kathleen Merrigan, many industry players left concerned about the direction USDA is taking in implementing a court order while not once mentioning the health or safety aspects of Roundup Ready alfalfa during the more-than-three-hour meeting.
Rosemarie Watkins, director of international policy at the American Farm Bureau Federation, said there is a "very real concern about where the department may be going with this in regard to coexistence and, perhaps, favoring one method of farming. When you start throwing in all these other things, including consumer preferences, you're really starting to deviate from what has been the mainstay of our biotech approval policy."
Watkins said she gets a sense that USDA is taking socioeconomic impacts into account on one side of the equation but not the other. One of the main topics of the meeting included liability, but one industry member said any liability suggestions only pointed back at the biotech industry to pay for potential losses.
It is nearly impossible to meet the extraordinarily low levels of biotech "contamination" in the agricultural arena, explained Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union.
Johnson said, there is no such thing as "zero" tolerance when trying to detect billions or trillions of a fraction of an amount of unintended materials.
"Anyone who hauls a load of grain to the elevator or sells a bale of alfalfa to a consumer understands that there is a certain level of stuff in the product that you didn't intend," Johnson said. However, "a tiny amount of (GM) material can contaminate a whole shipload of something if it's being sold in the organic or non-GM marketplace. That's a market pressure that is very real, but as some scientists would say, we shouldn't even be dealing with levels that are that tiny."
Johnson, who also attended the Dec. 20 stakeholder meeting, said USDA finds itself in a difficult spot -- a spot similar to one the Environmental Protection Agency finds itself in when environmental issues become subject to lawsuits.
Johnson said the bottom-line goal for USDA is to get as close to a consensus as possible among the various interests.
According to Johnson, Vilsack said "no matter what happens, it is still very likely that someone is going to sue, but he also believes if you can get as much of the industry to agree on a path forward," there may still be lawsuits, but they will be "over more narrowly defined issues as opposed to being the whole waterfront."
Another industry member at the meeting told Feedstuffs that many attendees flat-out oppose biotechnology and are not looking for coexistence.
"I don't think we can rewrite administrative procedures -- a proven process -- and throw them out the window simply because we're afraid of being sued, especially when no health or safety issues are raised," the source said.
Forage Genetics International -- a co-developer and marketer of GM alfalfa -- and other alfalfa seed providers were given the opportunity to share some of the proactive steps the industry has already taken to allow for coexistence in the marketplace.
Forage Genetics president Mark McCaslin said the industry appreciates the importance of stewardship, managing gene flow and protecting markets.
In 2007, the National Alfalfa & Forage Alliance (NAFA) convened a coexistence workshop that included a gamut of stakeholders, such as exporters, organic interests and seed and forage producers.
USDA's proposed conditional deregulation would prohibit forage seed production on 20% of current U.S. alfalfa acres and 50% of alfalfa production acres in the West. McCaslin said many are concerned with how this could disadvantage a great number of forage growers.
He added that industry stewardship proposals (some of which can be found at www.alfalfa.org) can accomplish the desired outcomes without disadvantaging that many growers.
Meeting attendees were divided into subgroups to further study the options on the table moving forward. McCaslin and NAFA will be heavily involved in a seed production subgroup in which he said the NAFA initiative will provide a starting point.
Many in the industry support building off of these voluntary industry stewardship standards because they provide a way to deal with GM/non-GM/organic coexistence without changing government regulations, which will set significant future precedence.
Another group will focus on liability, another on effects to the beef and dairy industries and still another on the advantages of only deregulating Roundup Ready alfalfa without attaching the conditions.
McCaslin said he is "optimistic" about the future outcomes for two reasons. The first is that the meeting provided an opportunity for the alfalfa industry to tell its story to a broad group. Second, he said Vilsack seemed to be receptive to a timeline that would allow growers to make planting decisions by this spring.
Two more stakeholder meetings are planned in January.