Monsanto's Genetically Engineered Roundup Ready Alfalfa Has Gone Wild
By Bill Freese
A recent study by U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientists shows that genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa has gone wild, in a big way, in alfalfa-growing parts of the West. This feral GE alfalfa may help explain a number of transgenic contamination episodes over the past few years that have cost American alfalfa growers and exporters millions of dollars in lost revenue. And it also exposes the failure of USDA's “coexistence" policy for GE and traditional crops.
The USDA has long maintained that GE crops can co-exist with traditional and organic agriculture. According to this “co-existence" narrative, if neighboring GE and traditional farmers just sort things out among themselves and follow “best management practices," transgenes will be confined to GE crops and the fields where they are planted.
The latest evidence refuting USDA's co-existence fairytale comes from a recently published study by a team of USDA scientists. The study involved Monsanto′s Roundup Ready alfalfa, which, like most GE crops in the U.S. is engineered to survive direct spraying with Roundup, Monsanto's flagship herbicide.
In 2011 and 2012, USDA Scientist Stephanie Greene and her team scouted the roadsides of three important alfalfa-growing areas—in California, Idaho and Washington—for feral (wild) alfalfa stands. Because alfalfa is a hardy perennial plant, it readily forms self-sustaining feral populations that persist for years wherever the crop is grown.
Greene and colleagues found 404 feral alfalfa populations on roadsides. Testing revealed that over one-quarter (27 percent) of them contained transgenic alfalfa—that is, plants that tested positive for the Roundup Ready gene. They believe that most of these feral populations likely grew from seeds spilled during alfalfa production or transport.
However, the researchers also found clear evidence that the Roundup Ready gene was being spread by bees, which are known to cross-pollinate alfalfa populations separated by up to several miles. Their results suggested that “transgenic plants could spread transgenes to neighboring feral plants and potentially to neighboring non-GE fields." While they did not test this latter possibility, there is no doubt that non-GE alfalfa has in fact been transgenically contaminated—not just once, but on many occasions.
In 2013, a Washington State farmer's alfalfa was rejected by a broker after testing revealed transgenic contamination. In 2014, China rejected numerous U.S. alfalfa shipments that tested positive for the Roundup Ready gene. Alfalfa exports to China, a major market that has zero tolerance for GE alfalfa, fell dramatically. U.S. hay prices fell and at least three U.S. alfalfa exporters suffered many millions of dollars in losses.
Both the Washington State farmer and those who sold to the exporters intended to grow only traditional alfalfa. It is not clear how their produce became contaminated. Besides cross-pollination from GE feral or cultivated alfalfa, possible explanations include inadvertent mixing during harvest or storage or (most insidiously) transgenic contamination of the conventional alfalfa seed they planted.
What makes the high (27 percent) GE contamination rate found in this study so remarkable is how little GE alfalfa produced it. The USDA first approved Roundup Ready alfalfa in 2005 and it occupied just 1 percent of national alfalfa acreage in 2006. A federal court prohibited new plantings starting in 2007, but allowed what had already been planted to remain in the ground (an alfalfa stand is typically grown for about five years). Because this study was conducted just a few months after the re-approval of GE alfalfa in 2011, all of the feral GE alfalfa the researchers detected arose from the comparatively few fields planted in 2005 and 2006. There is much more GE alfalfa being grown now (Monsanto says 30 percent of alfalfa seed sold is GE). So there is likely much more feral GE alfalfa today than is suggested by this study.
It's important to note that the study's major finding—that feral GE alfalfa is present and poses a contamination risk—has been known for at least six years. Oregon alfalfa seed grower Phillip Geertson presented the USDA with documented evidence of feral GE alfalfa in Idaho and Oregon in 2009, but was ignored. More broadly, the USDA exhaustively discussed this and other modes of transgenic contamination in its voluminous 2010 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on Roundup Ready alfalfa. In fact, buried in that EIS is data showing still earlier episodes of transgenic contamination of alfalfa dating back to the crop's first commercial introduction in 2005.
What's needed now is not more studies to tell us in finer detail what we already know, but regulatory action. Yet the USDA—which is embarrassingly subservient to the biotechnology industry—has failed to voluntarily enact a single restriction on GE crop growers. This forces traditional farmers to bear the entire burden of preventing transgenic contamination.
The ineffectiveness of this policy is shown by contamination-induced losses of billions of dollars in corn exports to competitors like Brazil. It is also suggested by the absurd spectacle of the U.S. (the world's leading corn and soybean producer) importing organic corn and soy from countries like Romania and India. Fear of transgenic contamination is one factor deterring more U.S. farmers from meeting America's growing demand for organic foods.
Because of federal inaction, citizens have taken action to protect their traditional agriculture at the county level and Center for Food Safety has provided critical assistance to these efforts. For instance, in 2014 voters in Jackson County, Oregon, overwhelmingly passed an ordinance prohibiting cultivation of GE crops in their county. Center for Food Safety helped the County and its farmers fend off a lawsuit seeking to invalidate the Ordinance brought by two GE alfalfa growers with financial backing from the biotechnology industry.
Similar “GE-free zones" have been created with Center for Food Safety assistance in at least seven other counties in California, Washington, Hawaii and a second county in Oregon. Center for Food Safety is also proud to support a new ordinance introduced in November of last year in Costilla County, Colorado, that would establish a GMO-Free Zone to protect locally bred heirloom maize from transgenic contamination.
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"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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