Luddites at the USDA Door

Terry D. Etherton

I can imagine that you are wondering what “Luddites at the USDA Door” means?  I selected the phrase to describe a process that USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack launched on December 20, 2010 to explore the topic of “coexistence” and regulatory oversight for Roundup Ready® Alfalfa, an alfalfa variety produced using the tools of modern genetic modification (GM).  Coexistence, you ask…what does this mean?

Some background is needed… In 2006, the Center for Food Safety, a prominent Luddite group, sued USDA to stop the sale and planting of Roundup Ready® Alfalfa seeds.  The next step in this “tale” was a federal court-ordered injunction in 2007 that halted sale of Roundup Ready® Alfalfa until a review and the final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) could be completed by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the USDA.  This was just released in December, 2010 and is a mere 2,468 pages, including appendices.  Imagine reading this!

If you care to get a historical perspective about the approval process for Roundup Ready® Alfalfa, you can read all the APHIS documents by clicking here:

The EIS confirmed what has been known for a long time in the scientific community that the Roundup Ready® Alfalfa is “substantially equivalent” to non-GM alfalfa varieties.  In other words, there is no difference between Roundup Ready® Alfalfa and other varieties of alfalfa.


Secretary Vilsack described “coexistence” as a way for supporters and critics (i.e., Luddites) of  Roundup Ready® Alfalfa to get along.

In the spirit of fostering “coexistence”, Vilsack convened a private “stakeholder” meeting of some of these groups on December 20, 2010 and asked the critics of biotechnology in attendance to suggest ways to “shape” future regulatory decisions on the biotech product. This has created an uproar in the scientific community!  And, for good reason.

The Wall Street Journal published a Review and Outlook piece “Ag Department Uproots Science – Vilsack seeks out politically congenial scientific opinion” on December 27 that captures the debacle Secretary Vilsack’s “coexistence strategy” presents.

….”While it may not be one of the major biotech crops, alfalfa is a regulatory test that could open the gate for similarly politically driven negotiations on non-organic crops from sugar beets to soybeans. If non-science criteria are introduced as considerations for allowing the sale of biotech crops, the effect would be disastrous for the USDA’s regulatory reputation. We hope Secretary Vilsack makes his decision based on science, not politics.”

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