The USDA Says Yes To Monsanto, And Now Organic Milk May Cost Even More

Last Updated Jan 29, 2011 10:11 PM EST

The USDA gave full approval yesterday to Monsanto's (MON) genetically engineered alfalfa, dealing a huge victory to large farm groups and the biotech industry. For organic advocates, who fought ferociously to keep Monsanto's crop off the market, it's a crushing blow, and one that may wind up driving the price of organic dairy higher, thanks to the fact that alfalfa is such an important part of cows' diets.

The problem comes down to the way GE alfalfa can easily contaminate organic alfalfa fields (GE technology is not permitted in organic agriculture.) Cross contamination from GE crops has been an issue for years, but the biotech crop war has come to an unprecedented boil over alfalfa because, unlike other crops that have been approved for GE planting, alfalfa is pollinated by insects that can travel long distances. On top of that, it's a perennial plant that sticks around for several years.

Gary Hirshberg, CEO of organic yogurt maker Stonyfield Farm, thinks that contamination of organic alfalfa crops is inevitable and will force organic dairy producers to start paying to have genetic testing done on their feed. "We're going to have to work a lot harder to give consumers the assurance they need that organic is GM-free. And it's going to add to the cost of organic, for sure," he told BNET.

Can't we all get along?
In recent weeks, USDA secretary Tom Vilsack' genuinely seemed to want to find a way for everyone to get along. He touted a compromise solution that would allow GE alfalfa to be grown, but with certain restrictions on how and where it could be planted. Vilsack tried to sell his plan to large farm groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation and the American Soybean Association, calling it "coexistence."

Big Agriculture hated the idea of crop restrictions, and they wrote a letter to the White House explaining how such rules would pose a threat to the vitality of the entire agricultural system. Newly empowered GOP members of Congress berated Vilsack for even bringing up an idea as ridiculous as "coexistence." Some called for Vilsack's head.

Squeezed between two warring sides, Vilsack caved to the pro-GE forces and their narrow legal reading of the Plant Protection Act, proving that large farm interests and biotech companies like Monsanto continue to wield huge caches of political power.

Some have pointed to the President's promised review of "burdensome" regulation as a factor in Vilsack's change of heart. But that's too simple. Obama's rhetoric about onerous regulation gave Big Ag another weapon in their already loaded arsenal, but they really didn't need the help.

Here's Organic Valley's George Siemon's account of the full-court-press attack by those in favor of Monsanto's alfalfa:

They used all their influence to have the Secretary's job challenged. There here have been op-eds in major papers and magazines ("Sack Vilsack," Forbes), special meetings with the White House, grilling by the Justice Department, endless lobbying, and on Thursday of last week, a Congressional member forum was held where the Secretary was taken to the wood shed and asked repeatedly why he had not approved RR-alfalfa sooner.
Pro-biotech forces have argued that it isn't fair to make conventional farmers jump through hoops because of the concerns of organic farmers. Maybe. But now it's organic farmers that will be left dealing the "burdensome" effects of a government decision, and organic consumers may wind up paying the price.

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