In January, after nearly four years of federal court delays, Monsanto Co. and co-developer Forage Genetics International got the green light to market Roundup Ready alfalfa. “I think there’s a general sigh of relief in U.S. agriculture that this is the right decision,” remarked Mark McCaslin, Forage Genetics president.
And seed companies began rolling out their brands genetically modified to resist glyphosate herbicide.
Fearing genetic contamination of organic and conventional alfalfa, organic and sustainable farming advocates were outraged. In late March, the Center for Food Safety, Earthjustice and nearly a dozen other plaintiffs filed a federal court lawsuit against USDA in California, seeking a new injunction.
Lead attorneys contended that USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service had acknowledged that it couldn’t enforce restrictions of the Roundup Ready trait stewardship in seed production established with the certified seed industry.
• Two new lawsuits seek to prohibit Roundup Ready alfalfa.
• The strongest claim is that the pollen could contaminate organic hay.
• Conventional practice and a California study place risk at near zero.
Two days later, a second suit was filed in a New York federal court by more than 60 plaintiffs. It challenged the validity of Monsanto’s patents on GMO alfalfa, corn, canola, cotton, soybeans and sugarbeets.
That lawsuit was filed by the Public Patent Foundation, or PubPat. Executive Director Dan Ravicher, a patent attorney, says the suit seeks to prevent Monsanto from continuing “unwarranted and damaging patent infringement lawsuits against farmers and others when their organic and non-GMO fields and crops become contaminated by Monsanto’s GMO crops.”
Responding to the PubPat allegations, Ben Kampelman, Monsanto public affairs spokesman, says, “Many of their allegations are false, misleading and deceptive. It has never been, nor will it be Monsanto policy to exercise its patent rights where trace amounts of our patented seed or traits are present in fields as a result of inadvertent means.
“Allegations regarding patent validity are contrary to long-established legal precedent, which supports the validity of Monsanto’s patents and others in the biotechnology field,” he says. Kampelman calls the PubPat suit “a publicity stunt designed to confuse the facts about American agriculture” and to reduce private and public investment in developing new, higher-yielding seed technologies.
Closer look at contamination risks
The plaintiffs’ strongest claim may be that the GMO alfalfa could contaminate conventional and organic alfalfa. The seed stewardship standards developed by APHIS and the National Alfalfa and Forage Alliance dealt with seed production fields only.
“Approving the unrestricted planting of GE [genetically engineered] alfalfa is a blatant case of the USDA serving one form of agriculture at the expense of all others,” charges Ed Maltby, executive director of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance.
“If this decision is not remedied, the result will be lost livelihoods for organic dairy farmers, loss of choice for farmers and consumers, and no transparency about GE contamination of our foods.”
Transgenic contamination via insect cross-pollination is the biggest concern. Certified seed contractors must meet isolation standards that confine seed production to western states. RR alfalfa and conventional seed production fields must be separated, for example, by a minimum of three miles for honeybees.
A 2008 University of California, Davis, study suggests that risk is near zero. Daniel Putnam, UC Davis Extension alfalfa specialist, reported that pollinators were released and attempts were made to maximize their movement from an RR alfalfa seed plot to nearby conventional alfalfa.
Measuring the gene flow, he found that at 160 feet there was about a 0.25%
(one-fourth of 1%) gene flow from the seed to the hay crop. At 500 feet or farther, the contamination was even closer to zero.
That particular hay crop was allowed to flower and go to seed. But as Putnam points out, “It’s a practice almost never likely to happen on any field harvested for hay.”
Still, Maltby, of Deerfield, Mass., fears organic producers could lose their primary dairy forage if organic alfalfa is cross-pollinated by bees carrying pollen from RR alfalfa stands. However, Kampelman counters that a positive GMO test could happen only if the pollinated non-GMO plant produces a seed that produces a new plant.
“Pollen from a biotech plant has no impact on the leaves, roots or any part of a non-biotech plant,” he clarifies. “Fields typically are harvested at or before 10% bloom — weeks before any bloom could produce a seed.”
This article published in the May, 2011 edition of AMERICAN AGRICULTURIST.
All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.