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Monday
Jan312011

Critics: USDA Deregulation of Mutant Alfalfa Threatens Organic Foods

Alfalfa field. Photo Courtesy - Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- The nation's organic farmers are sounding the alarm after an Obama administration decision they say could destroy their supply chains and drastically limit the choices and availability of some popular consumer foods.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture decided last week to allow the widespread, unregulated use of genetically modified alfalfa, commonly known as hay, which is the primary feed for dairy cows and beef cattle across the country.

Opponents argue that the mutant crops, engineered to survive by being sprayed with insecticide, could escape from their fields and eventually cross-pollinate with and contaminate neighboring organic crops.  That could mean less organic feed for the organic cows that produce a range of organic products.

"Consumers don't eat [genetically modified] alfalfa, of course," said Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, which examines the U.S. farming and food industry.  "But it's the main feed for dairy cows.  And organic milk, one of the most successful and popular organic foods, could be compromised if the organic cows eat non-organic feed."

Some environmental experts are also concerned that broader planting of herbicide-resistant crops, which are then doused with powerful chemicals, could expedite the spread of "superweeds," which are herbicide-resistant pests that force farmers to potentially use more toxic substances to root them out.

"This is a bad solution to a nonexistent problem," said Pollan, who noted more than 90 percent of alfalfa crops are grown without an herbicide.

Many organic farming advocates speculate that the new Roundup-ready alfalfa is an attempt by the crop's commercial producers -- Monsanto and Forage Genetics International -- to dominate the market and increase profits.

But Monsanto, the nation's leading producer of genetically modified seeds and popular herbicide Roundup, said Roundup-ready alfalfa has been welcomed by many farmers because it yields "healthier, faster-growing stands [plantings] and hay with fewer weeds in every bale."

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