Deregulation of Genetically Engineered Alfalfa Prompts Lawsuit

Monsanto commonly offers unsustainable solutions to the agriculture industry such as genetically engineered seeds and increased herbicide use and then dubs those dubious solutions "sustainable agriculture."

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Monsanto commonly offers unsustainable solutions to the agriculture industry—such as genetically engineered seeds and increased herbicide use—and then dubs those dubious solutions “sustainable agriculture.” The company’s latest unsustainable solution comes in the form of genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa, which the United States Department of Agriculture recently deregulated and approved for planting.

Alfalfa is the fourth most prevalent crop in the United States and is a key feedstock for the dairy industry. Despite the lack of any apparent shortage in the country’s current alfalfa supply, USDA decided that deregulation of GE alfalfa was necessary. In response, attorneys at Earthjustice and the Center for Food Safety filed suit last week against USDA arguing that the agency’s unrestricted approval of GE alfalfa was unlawful.

GE alfalfa is “Roundup Ready,” meaning it is resistant to Monsanto’s glyphosate herbicide Roundup. USDA data show that 93 percent of alfalfa currently planted by farmers in the United States is grown without the use of any herbicides. With the deregulation of GE alfalfa, USDA estimates that an additional 23 million pounds of toxic herbicides, such as Roundup, will be released into the environment each year.

Genetically altered crops resist Roundup, so they survive while all the weeds around them die. Some unintended consequences of planting these crops have ensued. For example, Roundup Ready varieties have spawned at least 15 species of “superweeds,” which have evolved resistance to the herbicide. Farmers have taken to dousing their fields with more and more Roundup and, when that fails to kill the weeds, even more toxic herbicides such as 2,4-D and paraquat.

And because alfalfa is pollinated by bees that can fly and cross-pollinate between fields and feral sources many miles apart, the engineered crop will contaminate natural alfalfa varieties. In other words, deregulation could mean the end of organic alfalfa and in turn the end of organic dairies, which stand to lose their primary source of organic feed.

The GE alfalfa decision follows Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s recent approval of a GE corn to be made into ethanol and the ongoing battle over GE sugar beets, a case Earthjustice is also litigating. Vilsack’s spate of GE deregulations apparently has the support of Republicans in Congress who chided the secretary in January for not moving swiftly enough to approve the engineered crops.

“We expect Monsanto to force-feed people genetically engineered crops—that’s its business model,” said Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff, who is lead counsel on the case. “We hoped for better from the USDA, which has much broader responsibilities.”

David Lawlor was a writer in the Development department. His environmental activism stems from an affinity for nature and the deep ecology philosophy espoused by the Norwegian philosopher, Arne Naess.

Established in 1988, Earthjustice's Mid-Pacific Office, located in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, works on a broad range of environmental and community health issues, including to ensure water is a public trust and to achieve a cleaner energy future.