Fifty-six lawmakers, including 50 representatives and six senators, sent a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack yesterday asking that the agency retain the regulated status of genetically modified (GMO) alfalfa.

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT.) and Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) led the effort, which comes just days after the U.S. Supreme Court rescinded a nationwide ban on Monsanto’s Roundup Ready alfalfa, directly in response to a USDA Draft Environmental Impact Statement finding “No Significant Impact” from using the agrigiant’s genetically engineered (GE), herbicide-resistant seeds.

gmo-alfalfa1-featured.jpgThe high court’s ruling this week maintains that it is up to the USDA to complete a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on GMO alfalfa before fulling deregulating it. As a release from Sen. Leahy’s office noted yesterday, genetically modified crops are subject to the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which requires federal agencies to review the environmental impacts of proposed actions. The agency did not conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement before deregulating Roundup Ready alfalfa in 2005.

In their letter yesterday, lawmakers sharply questioned the agency’s current evaluation and preliminary finding. “We have concluded that USDA’s preliminary finding of ‘No Significant Impact’ cannot be justified and we call on you to correct the serious deficiencies in the [Draft Environmental Impact Statement] and to deny the request for deregulated GE alfalfa.”

The letter says that the agency’s conclusion that contamination of non-GMO alfalfa is highly unlikely to occur is “not supported by the evidence or the science.”  Lawmakers contend in the letter that genetically modified alfalfa would contaminate the crops of both conventional and organic alfalfa farmers, resulting in “significant economic harm to alfalfa seed producers and to the organic dairy industry.”  

“The [Draft Environmental Impact Statement] acknowledges that gene flow contamination will likely occur and goes on to elaborate on the conditions which increase that possibility: proximity of fields, pest management strategies, feral alfalfa corridors, movement of honey bees and overstocking of pollinators,” says the letter.

“The [Draft Environmental Impact Statement] further acknowledges that honey bees, the primary pollinators of alfalfa, travel distances far in excess of the required isolation distances.  While [the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service] maintains that contamination is unlikely, they contradict their own conclusion by determining that glyphosate tolerant alfalfa deregulation will lead to a shift to larger farms as alfalfa producers seek more land to avoid contamination.”

Demand for organic dairy is growing rapidly and the sector currently generates about $1.4 billion in sales, according to the letter.

“Consumers today respect and rely on what the USDA certified organic seal represents, which includes no GE contamination,” the letter continues. “If the USDA organic seal no longer represents a GE-free product, the integrity of the entire organic industry in this country will be compromised and consumers may no longer choose organic products.”

This week’s 7-1 Supreme Court decision, in favor of Monsanto in Monsanto v. Geertson Seed Company, gives the agency the option of allowing limited planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa while it continues to finalize its Environmental Impact Statement, which is expected before the next spring planting season.

The full letter from lawmakers is available here