The US Department of Agriculture's 2011 decision to allow unrestricted planting of genetically modified alfalfa has come home to roost, as a Washington state non-GMO farmer has reported the contamination of his alfalfa crops. Characteristically, the USDA -- headed by Secretary Tom Vilsack, who was named "Governor of the Year" by the biotechnology industry's lobbying group, and Deputy Commissioner for Foods Michael Taylor, who represented Monsanto during his decade of employment at King & Spalding -- decided this week not to take any action regarding the contamination.
Farmers who grow non-GMO alfalfa worry that contamination of their product will limit its sales in Asia; the USDA has stated that this is a commercial problem, rather than an agricultural problem, and the agency declines to intervene. Given that transgenic contamination voids a farmer's organic certification, however, USDA's lack of interest in the matter is problematic. Indeed, by granting farmers the permission to plant GMO alfalfa -- entirely composed of Monsanto's Roundup-Ready alfalfa at present -- the USDA created a situation in which farmers growing transgenic alfalfa are bound by Monsanto's technology contracts, rather than by US law.
Further, the "Continued Constructive Dialogue" document promulgated by the USDA in 2011 appears to be of limited value, since its sole concession to preserving the existence of non-GMO alfalfa is storage of a limited quantity in a seed bank. If the non-GMO alfalfa is at risk of contamination within a year of planting, then GMO-free seeds are of no practical use, other than in some sort of doomsday scenario. Secretary Vilsack's statement that "I have also directed our Small Business Innovation Research program under the National Institute for Food and Agriculture to issue a call for proposals for improved detection of transgenes in alfalfa seeds and hay" seems rather pointless, now that the contamination has, indeed, been detected, and Vilsack himself has decided that it is not Agriculture's place to do anything about it.