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USA: Co-existence – new accents in biotech policy

(7 January 2011) In an open letter to users and critics of green biotechnology, Secretary of Agriculture of the USA, Tom Vilsack, has called for greater cooperation. The Secretary stated that a common goal should be the coexistence of various methods of agricultural production.

According to Vilsack, rapid increases in the cultivation of genetically modified plants during the past years have met with rising demand for food products that are organic or have been produced without biotechnology. This clash has led to insecurity and to legal dispute. Instead of solving such conflict in court, it may be more constructive to search for solutions that satisfy the variety of agricultural production methods.

Backdrop to the letter from Vilsack is the release of the final environmental impact statement (EIS) for genetically modified (GM) alfalfa by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The herbicide-tolerant alfalfa was placed under legal prohibition in 2007 when the Court for the Northern District of California determined that the approval had been issued without sufficient assessment of possible environmental risks.

In a similar case, further cultivation of genetically modified sugar beets was prohibited in autumn 2010. On both occasions, several environmental groups and consumer organisations had filed suit.

In the EIS draft of December 2010 addressing the cultivation of GM alfalfa, it is assumed that cross-pollination is possible. According to Secretary Vilsack, this justifies the concern of farmers who wish to continue cultivation in the conventional manner. Therefore, the USDA has recommended that such cross-pollination be prevented through the use of appropriate measures, such as mandatory isolation distances or the spatial separation of different cultivation areas.

Shortly before Christmas, Vilsack invited representatives of firms and agricultural concerns as well as from GM-critical organisations to a ‘round table’, at which appropriate co-existence measures were discussed. In consequence, public criticism referred to a retreat from the principle of regulating of GM plants strictly according to scientific criteria. According to an editorial in the Wall Street Journal of December 27, “If [this] precedent stands, it could permanently politicize a system that is supposed to be based on science.”

In the open letter, Vilsack emphasised that he continues to have great trust in the existing regulatory system for green biotechnology and that the safety of approved products is not in question. Nonetheless, according to the Secretary, is must be respected that strongly-growing organic production exists side-by-side with the farming of GM plants. As stated by Vilsack, “… we at USDA are striving to lead and effort to forge a new paradigm based on coexistence and cooperation […] so that food can remain abundant, affordable and safe.”

The conditions under which GM alfalfa may be planted in 2011 remain undecided. The USDA intends to publish its final recommendation after evaluation of the round-table discussions on coexistence and of more than 200,000 public comments. The decision would follow in 30 days.

Alfalfa is grown as fodder for milk and beef cattle on a total of more than nine million hectares in almost all federal states. Frequent contamination with wild plants leads nonetheless to loss in quality and digestibility of the feed. Herbicide-tolerant GM alfalfa and the suitable complementary herbicide are aimed towards the more effective regulation of undesirable weeds.

As is the case with all legumes, alfalfa is able to absorb nitrogen from the air with the aid of bacteria and can therefore be used as a ‘green fertiliser’.


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