Saturday, 16 January 2010

USDA seeks comment on the Environmental Impact Statement for GMO alfalfa

USDA seeks public comments by February 16 on the department's Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) (large .pdf) for genetically modified alfalfa. Participate in our democracy and let USDA know your view on this technology.

The background is that USDA in 2004 approved Monsanto's technology for genetically modified (GMO) alfalfa, which is resistant to the pesticide glyphosate (such as Roundup Ready sold by Monsanto). Previously, Roundup Ready was deadly to alfalfa and weeds alike, and was sometimes used at the end of the season to clear a field of alfalfa. With the new technology, farmers could use Roundup Ready more widely to kill the weeds while protecting the alfalfa.

The federal government has traditionally claimed that GMO technologies are substantially equivalent to conventional technologies. USDA had previously conducted a shorter environmental assessment but had claimed that no longer and more formal EIS was required. In response to a 2006 lawsuit, USDA was forced to conduct the full Environmental Impact Statement. The draft statement was published in December, and the comment period is now open.

The draft EIS says the new technology is mostly safe for the environment, but it does acknowledge what it describes as a small probability that genetically modified genes will contaminate non-GMO fields of alfalfa. This possibility threatens the markets for organic alfalfa and organic dairies that use alfalfa feed for cows, because the certified organic label requires using non-GMO technology. This possibility also threatens U.S. export markets for dairy, because consumers in other developed countries are reluctant to consume GMO foods.

The draft EIS says Roundup Ready is not very dangerous for animals who live in or near alfalfa fields. It says Roundup Ready (like any herbicide) may pose some risk for threatened and endangered terrestrial and acquatic plants. The EIS says these risks can be mitigated by good application practices, and it also essentially says the new GMO technology is not to blame, because, of course, other herbicides also endanger plants. That's what herbicides do.

Overall, the draft EIS says the GMO alfalfa should be approved.

For another view, Food & Water Watch, an environmental and food safety group that opposes GMO technologies fairly broadly, has a web page with suggested themes for public comments.

USDA is holding a series of public meetings around the country to discuss the Environmental Impact Statement.

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