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USDA Faces a Tough Compromise on GMO Crops

USDA Faces a Tough Compromise on GMO Crops

The federal government has never shied from its support for genetic modification. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates GM crops, says they are safe and help maintain adequate food supplies for the nation — and the world. Currently, more than 73% of the corn and 90% of the soybean plants grown domestically sprouted from GM seeds.

Not all stakeholders in the agricultural community share the USDA's enthusiasm. Proponents of organic farming and related “back-to-the-land” practices reject high-tech solutions like genetic modification. They worry that weather, birds or pollinating bees could cause GM material to drift, contaminating organic fields, including those growing feed for organic dairy cows.

Environmental activists filed lawsuits in 2006 trying to prevent what they called the USDA's rubber-stamping of biotech applications. At the time, two GM plants, alfalfa and sugar beets, were challenged. The lawsuits were successful, and forced the USDA to complete full environmental impact statements on each. The first one, for so-called Roundup Ready alfalfa, was released last month.

The report is not a decision document, but it does show how the USDA might proceed once a final determination is made in the coming weeks. One of the two proposals outlined by Secretary Tom Vilsack is a compromise that would allow the GM alfalfa to be grown, but with “a combination of isolation distances and geographic restrictions.”

GM opponents see the other option as the worse of the two: USDA would allow GM planting to go on, without restriction or segregation. In noting the alternatives, Vilsack acknowledged the growing tension between constituents.

“We need … to develop a sensible path forward for strengthening coexistence of all segments of agriculture in our country,” he said in a prepared statement.

The GMO issue occurs so far back in the production chain that some might argue it is of little concern to food retailers. Think again: A study of store brands by the Nielsen Co. last year found that GMO-free was the fastest-growing claim, even beating out gluten-free. Also in 2010, more than 600 retailers (including Whole Foods Market) participated in the first-ever Non-GMO Month.

Such awareness makes the USDA's decision all the more critical. There is a need to balance the yield-focused, industrial-agriculture complex it subsidizes with the eco-friendly practices it strives to nurture.

The organic farming community will not be fully insulated from the effects of genetically altered alfalfa, or sugar beets, or any other future GM crop. But the federal government cannot ignore the legitimate concerns of organic growers, particularly since the USDA's very own National Organic Standard prohibits the use of GM ingredients. The compromise proposal put forth by the environmental assessment is the fairest to all sides and should be adopted.