A fault line between the organic community and the USDA erupted Thursday when USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that the USDA has given the agricultural community carte blanche to plant genetically modified alfalfa anywhere, any time. This includes within striking distance of neighboring organic farms. This is a departure from his previous stance, which favored limiting where the modified crop could be planted. Spun as "co-existence" rather than as a restriction, Vilsack's earlier attempt to please both organic and conventional farmers garnered grudging support. Whole Foods, for example, defended the co-existence proposal  because it acknowledged that "cross-contamination of GE alfalfa could impact organic and non-GE farmers and consumers, both domestically and for our export markets." The mega-grocer also said that although co-existence wasn't the ideal set-up, at least it demonstrated that  the USDA respected the organic industry and was looking for a way for "organic agriculture has the right to not only survive but to thrive alongside conventional agriculture."

Thursday, however, ended the niceties. The situation came to a head when a court-ordered environmental study about modified alfalfa's impact was released this week. The report was triggered by a 2006 lawsuit that kept the pesticide-resistant stock from being planted, due to concerns regarding, for example, cross-contamination: if pollen from Monsanto alfalfa were to mix with plants from an organic farm, organic farms would lose their organic status and consumers would be given fewer choices. The research study which was started in 2007 and weighed in at over 3,000 pages gave Vilsack two choices: give Monsanto's alfalfa a hands-down approval for, or opt for the more restrained co-existence concept.

Vilsack went all-in and the much of the immediate reaction has not been kind:

  • It’s Like a Pandora’s Box, says the National Cotton Council of America's Keith Menchy, in an interview with the New York Times' Andrew Pollack. Menchy, manager of the organization's science and environmental issues, says the decision's implications go far beyond alfalfa crops, because the it could set the precedent to  reverse restrictions that are already in place for genetically modified corn, soy and cotton crops.
  • The Administration Caved to Big Business, writes Grist's Tom Philpott, who says Thursday's move is "more evidence that Obama wants to be seen as a friend to powerful business interests--at the expense of smaller, less powerful interests like organic alfalfa and dairy growers, and, in this case, of the public interest."
  • It's Devastating, and a sign that the USDA should "now be required to stop referring to itself as "The People's Department" (the name Lincoln gave it when he founded it in the 1860's)" writes LaVida Locavore's Jill Richardson.
  • We're Screwed  Unlike the co-existence theory which tried to establish buffer zones to reduce the odds of cross-contamination, The Center for Food Safety's Heather says the decision doesn't offer farms that shun genetically modified crops even a fig leaf of protection. Instead, she says Thursday's decision "places the entire burden for preventing contamination on non-GE farmers, with no protections for food producers, consumers and exporters."
  • USDA Had to Say Yes  A week before Thursday's decision, Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Pat Roberts, along with Rep. Frank Lucas, wrote the USDA's secretary and told him he was out of his league, saying his co-existence proposal "politicizes the regulatory process and goes beyond your statutory authority." Further, the Congressmen added, forcing a separation between conventional and non-modified crops would be a disservice to a larger cause for it would "hinder the future development of varieties necessary to address the growing needs to produce more food, fiber and fuel on the same amount of land with fewer inputs."