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0207 FG: Looking for answers about Roundup Ready alfalfa

Darren Olsen, Editor Published on 02 April 2007

This past week, I have spent many hours on the phone with producers, lawyers, industry representatives and average Americans, all looking for or providing answers to a recent court decision surrounding Roundup Ready alfalfa.

In many ways, there are more questions than answers at the moment, and many producers have been left with feelings of doubt and misunderstanding about the upcoming season.

In the following pages of information, I will try to do several things. First, I will try to answer many of the questions concerning this decision and what it means for producers. Second, I will share with you some of the thoughts and feelings of the people directly involved with both sides of this issue. Third, I will share some of my personal thoughts and feelings surrounding the ideas presented in this case.

Part one: The questions and the answers

1. What happened on March 12th in regards to Roundup Ready alfalfa?

On March 12th, Judge Charles Breyer ruled that the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the USDA failed to issue a full Environment Impact Statement when it deregulated the use of Roundup Ready alfalfa in the United States. As a result, the following actions have been taken in regards to the sale and use of Roundup Ready alfalfa:

•The sale of Roundup Ready alfalfa seed was to be stopped throughout the United States immediately.

•Any farmer with Roundup Ready alfalfa seed in their possession is to have all seed planted by the 30th of March, regardless of the farm’s location throughout the United States. No seed is to be planted after this date.

•Roundup Ready alfalfa’s status with APHIS changed from deregulated to pending and will remain that way until further court order or through the completion of an Environmental Impact Statement.

2. Who is involved with this case?

The plaintiffs in this case represent a wide range of organizations and seed growers throughout the United States. The Center for Food Safety represented itself and the following organizations and companies: Western Organization of Resource Councils, National Family Farm Coalition, Sierra Club, Beyond Pesticides, Cornucopia Institute, Dakota Resource Council, Trask Family Seeds and Geertson Seed Farms.

The defendant in this case was APHIS. Although this case directly affects Monsanto, Forage Genetics and other seed development companies, they were not specifically named as defendants.

It is important to note the court stated Roundup Ready alfalfa was safe for humans and animals and that this fact was not under any consideration. Since then, the judge has allowed for further evidence to be admitted into his final ruling by other concerned parties on both sides of the debate. All submitted facts will again be looked at on April 27th, 2007, when it is anticipated a final finding and injunction will be decided.

3. Who does this case affect?

This case has either a direct or indirect affect on all hay growers, seed companies and the recipients of their products throughout the United States and, for exporters, the world. Aside from the financial ramifications, producers will have to make adjustments to hay production if Roundup Ready alfalfa was being considered for their farm. In addition, anyone anticipating planting Roundup Ready seed after March 30th will also have to make arrangements for different varieties.

4. What did the judge rule on in regards to Roundup Ready alfalfa?

The Preliminary Injunction filed on March 12th was the result of a finding issued on February 13th of this year. As stated above, the judge ruled APHIS failed to conduct and release a full Environment Impact Statement when it deregulated Roundup Ready alfalfa. In his ruling, the judge stated the plaintiffs in this case had raised several concerns that should have been addressed in such a statement. These concerns included:

•The USDA did not sufficiently address the potential for contamination of natural and organic alfalfa by the genetically modified gene found in Roundup Ready alfalfa. He stated that the USDA did not take a hard look at this prospect in relation to the loss that could be experienced by those trying to maintain their traditional farming practices.

The ruling specifically states, “For those farmers who choose to grow non-genetically engineered alfalfa, the possibility that their crops will be infected with the engineered gene is tantamount to the elimination of all alfalfa; they cannot grow their chosen crop.”

•The development of Roundup-resistant weeds over the last several years was enough to warrant the need for an Environmental Impact Study. The judge concluded, “APHIS’s reasons for finding the development of glyphosate-resistant weeds not to be significant are not convincing. Reasoning that weed species often develop resistance to herbicides is tantamount to concluding that because this environmental impact has occurred in other contexts it cannot be significant. Nothing in NEPA, the relevant regulations, or the caselaw support such a cavalier response. The assertion that ‘good stewardship’ may be the only defense against such weeds is equally unconvincing. Such a conclusion is not the same as a finding that the development of the weeds is not a significant environmental impact.”

•The court also found that APHIS failed to look at how the increased use of Roundup-resistant crops would affect the environment. He concluded that, “In a related argument, plaintiffs assert that – even apart from the development of glyphosate-resistant weeds – APHIS failed to consider that the deregulation of Roundup Ready alfalfa will result in the increased use of Roundup, and likewise failed to consider how that increased use of Roundup, perhaps doubling its use on alfalfa fields in California alone, will impact the environment. And, argue plaintiffs, APHIS should have considered this increased use in the context of its deregulation of other Roundup Ready crops; in other words, APHIS must inquire whether the introduction of the many Roundup Ready crops will together increase the use of Roundup and impair the environment.”

5. What is going to happen on April 27th?

On April 27th Judge Charles Breyer will again look at finalizing his decision on this matter. As for now, the decisions are temporary and any point or provision of the temporary injunction issued on March 12th can be permanently enforced or changed. It is too early to know exactly how the judge will rule, especially in light of the fact that he has allowed several other parties to submit information in regards to this case, most notably Monsanto and Forage Genetics. Others have been allowed to offer facts and observations, and it is on this date that all these items will be addressed. Until this point, it has been only the information and process provided by APHIS that has had direct impact on this case for the defense.

6. What if I still have Roundup Ready Alfalfa seed?

(Since you will be receiving this publication after the March 30th planting deadline), if you still have Roundup Ready alfalfa seed, you need to contact the company where you purchased your seed from. Several parties have been working on taking care of this issue, and it is best to deal directly with those individuals or organizations where you purchased the seed from.

7. What if I have Roundup Ready alfalfa already planted?

Unless something changes in the April 27th ruling, you will be able to grow, harvest and sell your Roundup Ready alfalfa and in accordance to the environmental stewardship agreement you have already signed. You will be able to do this until you decide to replace the crop.

Part 2: Understanding the parties behind the case

While the facts are important, so are the ideas and feelings of those who are directly affected by those facts. I also feel it gives a face to both sides of this issue. This section will allow people to get to know the individuals that will continue to play a key role in the decisions surrounding this case. Please note that all quotes come directly from conversations held between Progressive Hay Grower and the individuals.

On the side of the defense . . .

Andrew Burchett
Public Affairs Manager,

“Clearly we are disappointed with the preliminary injunction because it will affect U.S. farmers’ ability to purchase Roundup Ready alfalfa which is a beneficial technology for those who have been able to plant it at this point.

“We believe that [the plaintiffs] don’t have the best interest of U.S. farmers in mind. I think it is also important to note that some of the points they raise as it relates to the coexistence between Roundup Ready alfalfa, conventional alfalfa and organic alfalfa can be addressed, and already has been addressed by the stewardship requirements as it relates to hay and seed production.

“We have seen great growth in biotech corn, soy and cotton, and we have seen these crops go from a seed production standpoint and a crop production standpoint to coexisting with organic and conventional systems. Even before the advent of biocrops, you had the production of genetically unique varieties that have to happen from a seed production standpoint. You have certification standards that have to be met, so a lot of the stewardship practices that are already in place for pollen flow are fundamentally similar to what we have implemented.

“Furthermore, there are stewardship requirements by those who grow Roundup Ready alfalfa. Those, in addition to the research and work that has been done, we feel address the questions raised by the plaintiffs in this case.
“We believe that as we get to present our evidence and oral arguments, we are confident we can move the court in a direction that addresses the procedural issues that need to be addressed and maintain access to this beneficial technology.

“I think it’s important to note that the Center for Food Safety, which organized the suit against the USDA in this case, is clearly opposed to biotech crops. Our point of view is that the regulatory information we submitted is very thorough and extensive, and the court will benefit from understanding that we have done the work and compiled the data needed to address the questions raised by the court.

“We are looking forward to presenting this evidence to this court. We’re not speculating about outcomes. We are focused on allowing farmers to have this choice at this point. “I think it is very important growers have this choice, and I think if you speak to producers who have used this technology already you will find a range of reactions from disappointment to outrage to this injunction. I think farmers need to have new tools to be more productive and more effective as they are continually challenged by a variety of economic and agronomic factors. It is the job of the ag business sector to come up with solutions.

“We support the choice to either use or not use this technology. We do believe that whatever their choice, they can coexist with others who have made a different choice.

“I think it is really important to keep clarity on the fact that it relates to the regulatory process around Roundup Ready alfalfa. The court agrees the seed has no safety issues and there is no evidence presented that there is an adverse environmental impact. The questions to the court were about potential problems that may or may not come up and what has been done to address potential environmental problems. Clearly the court allowed the Roundup Ready alfalfa in the ground already to be grown and sold.

“We are encouraged that we can present information and help intervene in this case.”

Lydia Botham
Forage Genetics

“As you can imagine, we are very disappointed with the preliminary injunction. We feel it is very unfair to farmers, especially to those in the northern states, but because of the weather, they will not be able to plant the seed before the 30th of March.

“We do believe evidence will come forward as the Environmental Impact Study is conducted that shows Roundup Ready alfalfa can coexist with traditional or organic crops. We feel the evidence clearly shows that. This issue is not about the safety of Roundup Ready alfalfa. It is safe for people, for livestock. It merely centers around the USDA’s process for approving Roundup Ready alfalfa.

“We are very confident that as this case moves along and as the information comes forth we will be successful at seeing Roundup Ready alfalfa going forward. We feel these products can coexist with the other farming systems out there.

“The number one confusing point about the injunction is that seed and hay production already underway can continue. No new seed production can be started for Roundup Ready alfalfa, but that already started can continue by companies. Whatever is underway by seed companies or is already in the ground can continue.

“It is also important to note that this is all preliminary and things can change for growers at the end of April. When the case came forward, it was just between the USDA and the plaintiffs. We, along with Monsanto, decided to intervene to be able to bring forward more information the court needed to have before a final ruling was placed. We felt we needed to make all the information available to the court to help the judge make a fair ruling in this case. We believe we will prevail, and the best information available is yet to come out.

“I think the most important thing is we feel very strongly that the right steps were taken when it came to market, and have intervened in this case because the court didn’t have the best information in forming this ruling. We will be sure that the court has this information.”

Rachael Iadicicco
Animal and Plant
Health Inspection Service,USDA

“We did an Environmental Assessment when [Roundup Ready alfalfa] was approved. We did not do an Environmental Impact Study (EIS). When you do an Environmental Assessment, if you come to a finding of no significant impact, you do not need to do an EIS. That was the finding of APHIS, so we did not do one. We will be doing [an EIS] to comply with the judge’s orders. I am not sure of the exact timeline, but it could take up to two years to complete. At this point, we are complying with the judge’s decision. We are committed to protecting the environment and take our position in this very seriously.

“The important thing is the seed already planted can be grown and sold as it was intended. The judge concluded APHIS had completed the necessary steps to find that Roundup Ready alfalfa is a safe product. We will be sending notices to sellers and growers about this issue and have changed the status of Roundup Ready alfalfa from deregulated to pending.

“To help answer questions in regards to this issue, we are preparing a Question and Answers statement that will be available on our website soon.”

On the side of the Plaintiffs . . .

Will Rostov
Senior Attorney,
Center for Food Safety
“Our hopes are that this injunction will stop the contamination of organic and conventional hay production, from genetically engineered hay until the government does what it was supposed to do which was to analyze the environmental issues surrounding this new technology.

“We felt the government, when they approved genetically modified alfalfa, didn’t follow proper review. The court felt the approval was wrong and that they needed to do the Environment Impact Study before it could speak to the approval of Roundup Ready alfalfa. If [APHIS] redid their decision correctly, they would have much more information to base their final decision on.

“The government did not look at the impact on farmers who did not choose this product or how they would be affected. The court is concerned about organic and conventional farmers.

“The judge was trying, with this injunction, to maintain the status quo the best way possible until the issue could be fully studied. The judge indicated the request for noregulatory status for Roundup Ready alfalfa was put on hold until the government could get better information.

“Roundup Ready alfalfa is now considered regulated and under strict control of the government. A new process will have to be followed, in addition to a full Environmental Impact Study before it can be deregulated again.

“Since this decision, many farmers have contacted us to show their support and have been asking what they can do. Farmers can contact us through our website and our e-mail if they want to find out more or offer their support. We can be reached at .

“Farmers have been growing natural alfalfa for years and what this decision does is keeps that status quo in place until the issues of genetic contamination are studied out by the government. It preserves the farmers’ ability to maintain their natural production.“

Pat Trask
Trask Family Seeds

“The whole issue about genetically modified organisms (GM) is somewhat of a new paradigm biology, and it is not well understood. So it takes time for people to make real informed decisions about it. What is even newer is a GM perennial. What is dangerous about GM alfalfa is that if there is a time when people want to get rid of it, it will be impossible to do so. To let this alfalfa grow and develop would be a terrible, horrible mistake.

“This injunction has stopped the release of GM alfalfa and that has to be good for farmers. In essence, Judge Breyer has said we are not to do harm to anyone.

“We expect and will request of the judge that the fleshing out of his decision in April will have some severe teeth such that anyone who has it already growing will have to take the stand out. What we will request of the judge is that either the stands will be totally destroyed so they cannot cross-pollinate or that the federal order has to depose the growers and seed sellers to provide GPS coordinates of every field where this is planted and that it must not be allowed to bloom and pollinate. This is a serious threat to any conventional fields that are planted nearby.”

Phil Geertson
Geertson Seed Farms

“My concern is the contamination of conventional alfalfa where there are many seed businesses. We have proven by some of the studies that have been run on conventional alfalfa that we are now showing a considerable amount of contamination.

“The government have also never established what an acceptable level of contamination is in conventional alfalfa. Essentially, it is now zero and we feel it can never be met again. Most people are not happy with any form of contamination at all.

“There are so many problems with the contamination of conventional alfalfa that this GM crop will never be approved. The feral alfalfa is also a source for contamination and no one can or is currently willing to regulate that.

“I would always suggest to all farmers to look for the best varieties where seed has been tested and proven for at least three years. Farmers need the best, and the best has already been growing for years without help from GM crops.

“This is a very complicated subject, especially when it comes to contamination to the conventional growers and seed sources. I am not opposed to research, but no one knows how this will affect us in the long run. Any GM crop that is released, should be recallable and be able to be pulled from the environment. If they can’t do that, it shouldn’t be released.”

Part 3: My thoughts

My higher education is centered in plant science. I have studied plant anatomy, plant physiology, plant pathology, weed science and a myriad of other plant-related topics in-depth.

One plant-related problem I have a firm understanding of is Dutch Elm disease. While it might appear to be a far stretch from alfalfa to elm trees, I feel there is a parallel here that can’t be ignored. For those who are not as familiar with Dutch Elm disease, I offer the following explanation.

Dutch Elm disease is a fungus spread to elm trees by the elm leaf beetle. It was first found in the Netherlands in the 1920s, with the first case reported in the U.S. in 1930 in Ohio. This disease has slowly worked its way throughout the U.S. until it destroyed nearly every American elm. Entire neighborhoods and natural forests have been decimated and destroyed by this invader, leaving little more than kindling in its path. It is amazing how a single outside pressure has run through a species and nearly destroyed it. Notice how I said nearly.

For some reason, there are a few trees that have a natural ability to resist this fungal nemesis. They have stood against the onslaught, regardless of how this disease came to them. They have the natural ability to fight off the disease, something they have had since a seedling. Something about their structure, their DNA, has given them the ability to overcome that which destroyed millions of trees that were supposedly just like them.

Since the vast destruction in the latter half of the 20th century, these few trees have given way to a new generation of Dutch Elm disease-resistant progeny. Aided by specialists in plant propagation, a new line of American Elm cultivars is coming online to replace the once majestic groves destroyed decades ago.

Now, what does this example have to do with Roundup Ready alfalfa? Quite simply, the ability to resist Roundup already exists somewhere in the population of alfalfa plants here in the U.S. It is scientifically inevitable. Whether you believe God created plants or they evolved over billions of years, the ability to overcome the pressure of Roundup already exists in alfalfa. If you were to go out this summer and spray every acre of alfalfa in existence with Roundup, not every one would die. I guarantee it.

If you don’t believe me, I offer Roundup-resistant weeds that have come on the scene recently as proof. The ability of weeds to resist glyphosate has come from the internal mechanisms within the plants themselves, from within their own genetic coding. When you look at which weeds are showing resistance and compare that to a list of plants with the Roundup Ready resistance gene, there is absolutely no way this gene has crossed to such a wide range of resistant plants. While some might have developed through gene transfer, I would submit most Roundup resistant weeds have developed it naturally, of their own accord.

So, the question, to me, comes down to this, “Do you try and stop the spread of something that already exists, or do you hasten its arrival?” The answer, in my mind, weighs on answering the question.

Is the ability of alfalfa plants to resist glyphosate like an AIDS epidemic, ready to destroy the very balance of hay production we have worked on for generations, or is it another tool in the arsenal we are working on to pass to the next generation of alfalfa producers that will help feed the world?

I don’t have the answer, and I would proffer that no one has the answer. Yes, I have my opinions and feelings about what happened and is happening for the industry and growers with this case, but I do not have answers. Just as with everything else we have in life, only time will tell.  FG