Science in Society Archive

Genetically Modified Alfalfa: Scope of an Improved Environmental Assessment

Prof. Joe Cummins

This report was submitted to the USDA on behalf of I-SIS

In 2006 the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) determined that glyphosate tolerant alfalfa was no longer subject to regulation by government. In 2007, a court action ruled that the deregulation process was invalid and contrary to the national environmental protection act, as the APHIS environmental assessment (EA) was faulty.  APHIS now intends to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) on the Monsanto Company and Forage Genetics International alfalfa lines designated events J101 and J163. Before that, it is seeking public comment on the scope of the pending EA (Docket No. APHIS–2007–0044: Environmental Impact Statement; Determination of Regulated Status of Alfalfa Genetically Engineered for Tolerance to the Herbicide Glyphosate This notice identifies potential issues and alternatives that will be addressed by the EIS and requests public comment to further delineate the scope of the issues and regulatory alternatives. Comments had be received by 6 February 2008.

The original faulty EA - USDA/APHIS Environmental Assessment Monsanto Company and Forage Genetics International Petition 04-110-01p for Determination of Non-regulated Status for Roundup Ready® Alfalfa Events J101 and J163 October 2004 - was judged inadequate by Charles Breyer on 13 February 2007. Lawyers from the Center for Food Safety raised a number of questions particularly related to the spread of the modified genes to organic and conventional alfalfa crops and on the development of glyphosate resistant genes. Judge Breyer ruled that APHIS failed to answer these substantial questions, concluding instead that any environmental impact is insignificant because gene transmission is the problem of the organic and conventional farmers and weeds always develop resistance to herbicides. As such reasons are not “convincing” and do not demonstrate that the agency took a “hard look” at the potential environmental impacts of its deregulation decision, he ordered APHIS to prepare an environmental impact statement in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act as requested by the plaintiff.

The judgement exposed the cavalier manner in which APHIS had put forward opinions based on little or no evidence, making claims such as, in the event of gene transmission, the impact is not significant because it is the organic and conventional farmers’ responsibility to ensure that such contamination does not occur. The GM alfalfa rested on a “no significant impact” decision based on this absurd conclusion in APHIS’ original EA, which made no inquiry into whether those farmers who do not want to grow genetically engineered alfalfa can, in fact, protect their crops from contamination. It also reasoned that federal organic standards do not require the testing of inputs or products for genetically engineered genes and that the unintentional presence of the engineered genes will not “necessarily” constitute a violation of national organic standards [1].  

Judge Breyer’s order did not deal with the potential impact on the modified alfalfa on the health of humans and animals and APHIS’ opinion that the GM alfalfa was harmless to humans and to animals was accepted in the absence of any evidence that it was so.

The scope of the new EIS proposed by APHIS [2] for consultation include, for example, consideration of impacts on organic alfalfa production, weed resistance to glyphosate, gene flow from GM alfalfa seed production, economic impacts on organic farmers. Will increased glyphosate usage related to the GM crop affect soil and water quality? What about impacts of the glyphosate usage on threatened or endangered species, or the health and safety of human beings? What about the health and safety of human beings and livestock exposed to GM alfalfa, such as allergy and other immune effects? Can the adverse effects of using GM alfalfa be mitigated? What are the consequences of mitigation on the coexistence of organic and conventional alfalfa production and export? Are there other potential impacts?

All of the scope items listed by APHIS, and more are worth fully investigating. We must request the EIS to address a fuller range of topics than is required in the court order, and discussion should be open to findings and reports completed after the defective EA was completed in 2004.

One aspect requiring fuller comment is the mindset of those preparing the EIS.  As pointed out in an earlier comment submitted on the original EA of 2004 [3], there was an apparent bias toward unsupported opinions rather than references to relevant empirical studies. It is imperative that the new EIS should be produced by a fresh group of APHIS staff members who had not been involved in the original EA, those hew members should be committed towards full and unbiased reporting based on empirical evidence.

This is No. 40 of I-SIS’ submissions to USDA.

Article first published 18/03/08


  1. Breyer C. IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA No. C 06-01075 CRB MEMORANDUM AND ORDER GEERTSON SEED FARMS, et al., Plaintiffs, v.MIKE JOHANNS, Secretary of the UnitedStates Department of Agriculture, et al.,Defendants. Case 3:06-cv-01075-CRB Document 83 Filed 02/13/2007 Page 1 of 20
  2. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service [Docket No. APHIS–2007–0044] Environmental Impact Statement; Determination of Regulated Status of Alfalfa Genetically Engineered for Tolerance to the Herbicide GlyphosateFederal Register 1198 Vol. 73, No. 4 Monday, January 7, 2008.
  3. Cummins J. Roundup ready alfalfa [SANET-MG] Archives 2004, archives/JoeCummins/msg00330.html

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