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Why Monsanto Always Wins

The USDA recently approved Monsanto's Roundup Ready alfalfa. Government regulators openly rely on data and research provided by the biotech industry when approving GE technology. (Photo: tipsycat)

The recent approval of Monsanto's Roundup Ready alfalfa is one of most divisive controversies in American agriculture, but in 2003, it was simply the topic at hand in a string of emails between the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Monsanto. In the emails, federal regulators and Monsanto officials shared edits to a list of the USDA's questions about Monsanto's original petition to fully legalize the alfalfa. Later emails show a USDA regulator accepted Monsanto's help with drafting the initial environmental assessment (EA) of the alfalfa and planned to “cut and paste” parts of Monsanto's revised petitionright into the government's assessment.

The emails were uncovered during a lawsuit filed by the Center for Food Safety (CFS) and concerned farmers that challenged the USDA's decision to approve Roundup Ready alfalfa in 2005. The CFS views the emails as prime evidence of “collusion” between the biotech industry and public officials charged with regulating genetically engineered (GE) crops. It's unclear if such internal cooperation continues under the current administration, but regulators still openly rely on data and research provided by the biotech industry when approving GE technology.

? It's unclear if such internal cooperation continues under the current administration, but regulators still openly rely on data and research provided by the biotech industry when approving GE technology.

A federal judge temporarily banned the alfalfa in 2007 as a result of the CFS lawsuit, but last summer, the Supreme Court ruled that the USDA could reconsider deregulating the GE alfalfa after completing an environmental impact statement (EIS). The USDA fully deregulated the alfalfa on January 27, 2011.

Like the GE corn and soybeans that now dominate agribusiness, Roundup Ready alfalfa is genetically engineered to tolerate glyphosate-based herbicides like Monsanto's Roundup. Farmers can plant Roundup Ready crops and blanket their fields with the herbicide knowing that weeds will be killed and the Roundup Ready crops will be spared.

Back in 2003, USDA officials were concerned about “deficiencies” in Monsanto's original petition to deregulate the GE alfalfa seeds, so they drafted a letter with about 90 questions for Monsanto. In several emails, officials working with the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) asked Monsanto officials to comment and “suggest improvements” on at least three drafts of the “deficiency letter.” Monsanto was happy to redraft the letter point by point.

Monsanto withdrew its original petition in February 2004 after two undocumented conference calls with APHIS personnel. One month before the final petition was submitted in April, Monsanto regulatory officer Glen Rogan sent two emails to APHIS petition reviewer Virgil Meier indicating that Monsanto was willing to help draft the USDA's EA of Roundup Ready alfalfa. APHIS conducts EA's to assess the potential environmental impacts of proposed agricultural products.

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Rogan asked Meier to consult his boss and colleagues about the possibility of Monsanto assisting in the assessment because it would be “precedent setting.” Meier, who was in charge of writing the EA, accepted Monsanto's help and said he would “cut and paste” information right from petition into the EA:

If you are willing to provide assistance with the EA, I would appreciate it. At this time, no one has voiced concern with this so I am assuming that there is no problem. In a related matter, because I am supposed to write the EA, I would appreciate receiving an electronic copy of the petition (Word?) so I can do cut and paste which I think will speed up the completion of the EA.

Bill Freese, a policy analyst with CFS, said this kind of cooperation between federal regulators and the biotech industry is unacceptable. “It should go without saying that an applicant should play no role in APHIS's regulatory review of an applicant's product, beyond supplying requested information,” Freese wrote in a 2009 letter to the USDA. The USDA did not respond to Freese's letter, but a spokesperson told Truthout that the USDA works closely with industry petitioners and can include some information from a petition in the EA.

Freese told Truthout that the approval process for controversial GE crops like Roundup Ready alfalfa is basically a “sham” designed to increase consumer confidence in the controversial GE crops. Freese has been fighting the battle against biotech for years, and he can't remember a single case when regulators failed to eventually grant approval of a GE crop.

Sham or not, the final EIS that led to the final approval of Roundup Ready alfalfa is a massive document that dives deep into the scientific debates over GE crops. Opponents argue that Roundup Ready alfalfa will threaten organic crops with herbicide drifts, increase the presence of an already growing list of herbicide-resistant weeds and inevitably contaminate conventional and organic alfalfa with transgenes through cross-pollination. The EIS contains evidence of these risks, but the USDA considers them inherent to modern agriculture and ruled that Roundup Ready alfalfa poses no more “plant pest risks” than conventional or organic alfalfa varieties.

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The humble alfalfa crop provides more to Americans than crunchy sprouts for salads and sandwiches. Farmers plant millions of acres of alfalfa to produce forage seed and hay to feed cows and other livestock. The ever-growing organic dairy industry, for example, depends on naturally grown alfalfa products to feed its livestock, and in turn, the millions of Americans who eat organic food. The possibility that Roundup Ready alfalfa could cross-pollinate and infect non-GE organic alfalfa is a key issue for organic farmers. If the Roundup Ready transgene spreads to non-GE alfalfa – which critics like Freese claim is inevitable – then the industry may have to change the standards for determining what can be labeled “organic” and “natural,” and the growing organic food industry could face millions of dollars in losses if their alfalfa is contaminated with Monsanto transgenes.

The USDA claims that the probability of gene flow between GE and non-GE alfalfa is very low, but the EIS does document several instances of transgenic contamination. About 200,000 acres of Roundup Ready alfalfa in 48 states were planted and harvested in 2005 and 2006 before the CFS lawsuit forced a ban. During this time, two alfalfa seed production firms, Dairyland and Cal/West Seeds, reported transgenic contamination in non-GE alfalfa seeds in California, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Dairyland reported contamination rates hovering around 1 percent, but in 2009, Cal/West reported that 12 percent of more than 200 alfalfa seed lots were contaminated with transgenes, and in 2008, all six of the firm's research lots tested positive for GE contamination. Preliminary data from 2009 showed that 30 percent of seed stock lots were contaminated.

Forage Genetics International, the company that developed Roundup Ready alfalfa for Monsanto, provides the largest data set on cross-contamination in the USDA's final EIS. A report conducted by Forage Genetics on the “best practices” established by the industry for growing Roundup Ready alfalfa found cross-contamination rates between 0 and .18 percent. Critics like Freese say data provided by the industry doesn't belong in the USDA's assessments, but the USDA claims the data shows “acceptable” rates of transgenic contamination.

Freese and the CFS are not the only advocates concerned about the economic impacts of cross-contamination. In June 2010, 55 members of Congress joined Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) in sending a letter to the USDA requesting the department decide against deregulating Roundup Ready alfalfa. Citing alfalfa seed markets in countries that have banned GE seeds and data provided by Dairyland and Cal/West Seeds, Leahy and his supporters claim the US could lose $197 million annually in alfalfa seed and forage exports as a result of GE contamination of organic and conventional seeds.

The letter also questions the need for Roundup Ready alfalfa when only 7 percent of alfalfa hay is currently treated with herbicides. Freese said alfalfa is often treated with chemicals sprayed by airplanes, and the CFS is concerned that aerial sprays of Roundup could drift onto conventional and organic alfalfa plots and damage crops that are not resistant to Roundup. According to some estimates, Roundup Ready alfalfa could increase herbicide use by up to 23 million pounds per year.

The increased reliance on glyphosate-based herbicides like Roundup has caused weeds to develop their own tolerance to the chemical. Herbicide-resistant weeds, sometimes called “superweeds,” now infest millions of acres of cropland. Farmers now combat the weeds with cocktails of herbicides like 2,4 D – an ingredient in Agent Orange – that are know to be more toxic than glyphosate. In all, farmers have used at least 318 million more pounds of herbicides and pesticides in the past 13 years as a result of planting GE crop seeds like Roundup Ready corn and soy.

The USDA, however, concluded that new glyphosate-resistant weeds would be slow to develop in Roundup Ready alfalfa stands.

Freese said the USDA chose to ignore important data in favor of outdated research and information provided by firms with close connections to the biotech industry. “APHIS cites studies on herbicide use with Roundup Ready crops that were done in the late 1990s,” Freese said. “That was before any glyphosate-resistant weeds had evolved, and so before the time when their emergence began driving the big increase in herbicide use we've been seeing since 2001.”

Freese said that, like the data provided on cross-contamination provided by Forage Genetics, the USDA relies on data from industry-funded groups like the National Center for Food and Agriculture Policy (NCFAP) and PG Economics.

The biotech industry plays hardball in Congress as well. One week before Roundup Ready alfalfa was deregulated, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack testified before the House Committee on Agriculture, where Chairmen Frank Lucas (R-Oklahoma) led a charge to press the USDA to fully deregulate the alfalfa. A political action committee and individuals associated with Monsanto donated $11,000 to Lucas' campaign last year, and Lucas has received $1,247,844 from the agribusiness industry during his political career, according to watchdog site Since 1999, the top 50 companies holding agricultural or food patents have spent more than $572 million in campaign contributions and lobbying efforts, according to a report released last year.

The USDA does invite the American public to weigh in on controversial issues like GE crops, and the CFS reports that, last spring, 200,000 people submitted letters “highly critical” of the department's draft conclusions on Roundup Ready alfalfa. “Clearly the USDA was not listening to the public or farmers but rather to just a handful of corporations,” CFS Director Anthony Kimbrell said after Roundup Ready alfalfa was fully legalized. The public comments may have fallen on deaf ears, or perhaps they were just drowned out by the booming voice of a biotech industry that refuses to take no for an answer.

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