Did the White House pressure USDA to approve Monsanto’s GMO alfalfa?

  • Published on February 2nd, 2011

agriculture secretary Tom VilsackWhy did Tom Vilsack completely cave and approve Monsanto’s Gene Modified (GMO) alfalfa without any restrictions at all? He was pushing an alternative – approval with some restrictions – to protect organic farmers – but it looks like a combination of pressure from the new GOP Congress, industry, and the White House killed that.

Vilsack – a longtime proponent of biotech who had been derided as “Monanto’s buddy” when he was Governor of Iowa – had been working for months on a “coexistence” plan that would have at least attempted to prevent contamination of conventional and organic crops with Monsanto’s tailored genes. He’d convinced big organics companies like Whole Foods, Stonyfield Farm and Organic Valley to go along with the plan as the lesser of two evils. Which is why everyone was caught flat-footed when he ditched his own compromise last week and simply let the GMO genie out of the bottle.

“A lot of people are shell shocked,” Christine Bushway, chief executive officer of the Organic Trade Association, told the Wall Street Journal. “While we feel Secretary Vilsack worked on this issue, which is progress, this decision puts our organic farmers at risk.”

(In case you’re just joining us on this issue, GMO food has barely been tested for health effects on animals and humans, and scientists worry about unknown side-effects. Both organic foods and foods for export to Europe can’t contain GMO ingredients – even traces – and pollen from GMO fields can be carried by wind or bees to fertilize organic fields, contaminating them with Monsanto’s designer genes. See: The trouble with Monsanto and GMO – Dr David Suzuki spells it out as well as the list of other articles at the end of this story.)

Industry pressure wouldn’t have been enough to force Vilsack to abandon the plan – Monsanto has been pushing for 12 years to get this approved, after all. What changed was a one-two punch from the political side.

To the woodshed

The new GOP/Tea Party majority in the house has been on the warpath, and they weren’t interested in compromising – on this or any other issue.

More pressure came from Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK), Chair of the House Ag committee; Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), ranking Republican on the Senate Ag committee; and Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS), who wrote Vilsack (via):

The proposed third alternative is equally troubling due to the precedent it will set for open pollinated crops in the future.  For example, with 86 percent of the corn crop and 93 percent of cotton planted to biotech varieties last year, the decisions made in the context of alfalfa will be felt across the country.  Further, the implications of such decisions could potentially 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.

It is unfortunate that those critical of the technology have decided to litigate and as you rightly point out that courts may unwisely interfere in normal commerce.  However, the alternative you propose and include in the EIS is equally disturbing since it politicizes the regulatory process and goes beyond your statutory authority and indeed Congress’ intent in the Plant Protection Act (PPA).  The PPA requires the Secretary to make a scientific determination if the product under review is a plant pest (7 U.S.C. 7711(c)(3)).  If the final decision is that the product is not a plant pest, nor would the movement of the product in question impose the risk of dissemination of a plant pest, then USDA has no authority to impose further restrictions (7 U.S.C. 7712(a)).

Lucas followed that letter up by hauling Vilsack in front of his committee and pilloried him:

““A product that has repeatedly been found safe should be deregulated… Since there is no plant pest risk, the only option under [the Plant Protection Act] is full deregulation.” Lucas said he recognizes USDA has proposed the partial deregulation option to prevent future lawsuits, but added, “That is a political objective and is outside the scope of legal authority.”

Democrats on the committee weren’t much help either. Iowa Representatives Leonard Boswell (D) and Steve King, (R) worried that by looking worried and placing restrictions we would undermine our arguments to Europeans that GMOs were perfectly safe. (Not to worry – Europeans aren’t buying that.)

And the DesMoines Register reported:

The committee’s ranking Democrat, Collin Peterson (MN), said the proposal “creates more questions than answers” and expressed doubts that the litigation would end. “Some folks will apparently use every tool possible to try to shut down biotech crops.”

With even members of his own party trying to shut down the initiative, Vilsack must have walked out of the hearing wondering if he had any supporters left in Washington.

“Burdensome” regulation

Turned out he wasn’t going to get support from the President, either.

The White House was caught in a bind. President Obama had just promised in the State of the Union address to cut back on “burdensome” federal regulations that would cost business money. How could they turn around and introduce a massive new regulation just days later?

According to the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd (via Grist’s Tom Philpott), White House political advisor David Axelrod even joked about “plowing ahead” with deregulation.

It appears they continue to be trapped in “magic thinking”: “If we just play nice with the Republicans and offer them compromises, they won’t attack us and call us socialist tyrants engaged in a job-killing power-grab.”

Good luck with that. Even as the White House was pressuring Vilsack to cave, Republicans in Congress were introducing legislation to hamstring the EPA on climate change, gut the clean-energy subsidies Obama had bragged about in the SOTU, and repeal the Health Care Bill.

So what if the “Big Government Bad” folks had had one more target to whine about?

Sweetening the deal

Now rumor has it the USDA is about to cave on GMO sugar beets as well, which would round out GMO contamination of American’s sweeteners – high fructose corn syrup is pretty much solidly GMO, and we don’t use much cane sugar in this country – a high tariff keeps out cane sugar to protect the profits of Midwestern agribusiness.

There’s still time to prevent unrestricted release of GMO sugarbeets…

What can you do?


  • Tom Vilsack – USDA Alfalfa Comments Line:  301-851-2300
  • President Obama  202-456-1111 (or send a written message online)
  • Monstanto               314-694-1000

More on Monstanto and GMOs:

(Photo by USDA.gov)

About the Author

Jeremy Bloom is the Editor of RedGreenAndBlue. He lives in New York, where he combines his passion for the environment with his passion for film, and is working on making the world a better place.