WASHINGTON – The Agriculture Department is allowing widespread planting of genetically modified alfalfa, attempting to bring to a close a lengthy legal and regulatory process in which organic producers attempted to curtail the use of the modified crop.
The decision announced Thursday is a blow to the organic foods industry, which complains that modified seeds can contaminate their organic crops through pollination, bringing genetically modified foods into their fields. The Agriculture Department has said the modified alfalfa – used primarily for hay for cattle – is safe, but some consumers don’t want to eat foods derived from it, including milk or beef. The growing organic industry and its millions of consumers have long been wary of genetically modified seed companies such as Monsanto, citing the purity of natural seeds, the ethics of eating modified foods and possible environmental damage from creating new varieties of crops.
Farmers who use the seeds say they boost their crop yields and help reduce prices for consumers in the grocery store. The biotech companies say they are doing their part voluntarily to restrict where their alfalfa crops are planted so they don’t contaminate other, non-engineered crops.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had said in December that the department was considering, as one of several options, government restrictions on planting of the modified alfalfa, giving producers of organic and other non-engineered alfalfa hope. But the department came under sharp criticism for that proposal from the genetically engineered-seed companies and Congress.
In a hearing last week, several members from farm states questioned the proposal, saying it politicized the regulatory process. Because the alfalfa is safe, its planting should be allowed, they argued.