Vilsack looks for solution on coexistence

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has some pretty complicated problems facing his Department. On the one hand, he has biotech companies developing products that have been determined by science to be safe and many farmers who wish to use them. On the other hand, he has a small but growing group of organic farmers who claim that biotech crops will “destroy their ability to farm organically”. He’s looking for coexistence between both types of farmers.

At this time, coexistence between organic and conventional farms is worked out individually by neighbors. On a national scale, organic groups have initiated multiple lawsuits against the USDA in what some say are blatant attempts to prevent biotech crops from being grown at all (sugar beets, alfalfa).

In an effort to solve the problem, a creative potential solution has been devised – partial deregulation of biotech alfalfa. This would “include isolation standards from other crops, set geographic restrictions on where the crop is grown, spell out harvest periods and regulate equipment use,” writes Charles Abbott on Check Biotech. One problem with this plan is that the USDA might be overstepping its regulatory authority. The USDA is charged with determining the potential pest status of any biotech crops submitted for deregulation, but doesn’t have requirements or authority to say what farmers can and can not do with a crop once it is deregulated.

Today, this issue is being debated in the House Agriculture Committee.

For more about the debate in real time, follow Philip BrasherChris Clayton, and Sara Wyant on Twitter, among others.

Edit: while researching for the post What the heck is alfalfa, anyway? I found the document where the specific conditions for conditional deregulation are laid out. The recommendations aren’t as bad as I thought they would be. They should be more than enough to satisfy anyone who knows even a little about alfalfa biology.

Combined Isolation Distances and Geographic Restrictions on the Production of GT Alfalfa

Alternative 3 (Isolation/Geographic Restrictions Alternative) describes a combination of isolation distances and geographic restrictions on hay and seed production to address and resolve coexistence issues and concerns about risks of cross pollination and other potential impacts to conventional, and organic alfalfa producers while allowing the commercialization of GT alfalfa. This third alternative would impose management practices for the planting, harvesting, use or sale of GT alfalfa seed and in some locations hay. This alternative could be implemented by an APHIS decision to deregulate in part, or through a Federal/industry partnership arrangement. Under this alternative, the developer (marketer) of GT alfalfa would ensure that end users are using the required management practices. They might choose to do this through contracts or licenses, or by other means. A training component would also be part of the program to educate producers about the required stewardship practices. Reporting requirements for the developer (marketer) subject to verification would be used to ensure compliance with the terms of the program. Under this alternative, failure to comply with the requirements may result in penalties to the developer (marketer). The required management practices would undergo periodic reviews to determine if modifications were warranted. Changes to the management practices would be approved based on available data on their effectiveness in supporting coexistence.

The following is a description of the very specific management practices that would be included in the requirements described above for GT alfalfa.

GT Alfalfa Production

  • GT alfalfa forage fields may not be harvested for seed. The only GT alfalfa seed fields would be in the geographically restricted areas, described below, that are designated for GT alfalfa seed.
  • GT alfalfa seed bag labeling and seed identification (e.g., a unique seed colorant) would be required. These product identity mechanisms would be designed to notify all GT alfalfa forage growers of the presence of the GT alfalfa trait and the geographic limitations for product use.
  • An annual report would be submitted to the USDA summarizing activities in education and training, monitoring, and compliance with the conditions of this license agreement. The USDA or a designated third party could audit the petitioner’s records to determine compliance with the conditions of this license or otherwise investigate potential noncompliance with these conditions.
  • Develop an education program and provide training to ensure that all growers, distributers and handlers of GT alfalfa are aware of the management practices, geographic restrictions and the isolation distance set forth in this licensing.

GT Alfalfa Forage

  • In Tier I states there are no restrictions on planting GT alfalfa for forage production.  Tier I states are those states in which commercial alfalfa seed is not produced.  The 2007 Census of Agriculture identifies these states as: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Alaska, and Hawaii.
  • Tier II states are those states that produce some seed, but seed production is limited to less than one percent of the total U.S. seed production.  States in Tier II are: Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Texas.
  • In Tier II states, GT alfalfa planted within 165 ft of a seed field must be harvested at or before ten percent bloom.
  • Tier III states produce more than 1 percent of the U.S. alfalfa seed.  These states are: Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.
  • In Tier III states GT alfalfa for forage cannot be planted in counties where seed is grown (based on the 2007 Census of Agriculture). If a GT alfalfa forage field is located within 165 ft of a conventional alfalfa seed field (which may occur on the border of a county), the GT alfalfa grower must harvest forage at or before ten percent bloom.  All GT alfalfa forage growers are required to report GPS coordinates of all GT alfalfa forage field locations.  GPS field location information will be made available to the supervising program and seed certifying agencies for monitoring and for enforcing the planting restrictions applicable to GT alfalfa forage fields.

GT alfalfa seed production

  • GT alfalfa seed production will be limited to the geographic areas in Tiers II and III where the grower can maintain isolation distances of 5 miles between GT alfalfa and conventional alfalfa.
  • Field locations will be identified by GPS and will be included in the annual report to USDA.  Location data will be made available to official seed certifying agencies upon request.
  • Equipment will be used only for GT alfalfa seed production or cleaned by an appropriate protocol to remove GT alfalfa from the equipment before  use on other (not GT alfalfa) crops.
  • GT alfalfa seed will be handled and stored in a way to prevent comingling with other agricultural products.


  1. “On the one hand, he has biotech companies developing products that have been determined by science to be safe and many farmers who wish to use them.”
    The “science” that determines biotech products to be safe is the same type of “science” that determines pharmaceutical products to be safe. At least Big Pharma is still required to list the side effects of their poisons – it’s a shame that agribusiness isn’t.

  2. You can put scare quotes around science all you want, but it doesn’t change the fact that there has been a great deal of research by independent scientists, funded by governments around the world. We have a page of such research that includes some but far from all studies that have been conduced by independent scientists with independent funding. The evidence is clear that the methods of biotechnology are safe and so are the products on the market.

  3. Scientists funded by governments are never “independent” in any meaningful sense. I have yet to see any long term (i.e. 2+ decades) research on the effects of the ever increasing number of biotech products on human health.
    So long as biotech is performed by mad scientists who can copy and paste without truly understanding the programming language it will not be safe. So long as it is used by agribusinesses who can plow and plant without truly understanding agriculture it will not be safe. The epic sized hubris of the biotech industry will result in an epic sized catastrophe. The worst case scenario is a failure of biotech, a bug or programming error that results in epic crop failure (i.e. South Africa’s biotech corn failure writ large). The best case scenario is a success of biotech, which will ultimately result in epic crop failure due to the destruction of the topsoil and it’s fertility.

  4. I just reread this comment and realized that you are probably talking about the recent case where about 25% of some fields of corn of a certain variety planted in South Africa was not pollinated so did not produce kernels. That problem was due to other factors having nothing to do with biotechnology and the farmers were compensated for the lost profits. If you want to talk about the genetics and biology of why this happened, we can but I have a feeling you aren’t interested in the details.
    Biotechnology is a method that can be used to develop many traits, from herbicide resistance to virus resistance to improved vitamins to much more. Biotechnology does not itself cause industrial farming or monocultures, which existed prior to biotech and which would exist even if biotech did not exist. Destruction of topsoil has nothing to do with biotechnology.
    If you would educate yourself a little on the subject, we could have a conversation. Till then, you’re basically typing biology nonsense.

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