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Feb 042011

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Organic milk, which has won strong consumer support in recent years, is being put at risk by the government’s recent decision to deregulate genetically engineered alfalfa, says the president of one of the nation’s most successful organic dairies.

Albert Straus, president of Straus Family Creamery, which produces certified Organic milk and dairy products

Albert Straus, president of the Straus Family Creamery in California, says that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ruling allowing genetically modified alfalfa to be planted anywhere “will deprive consumers of their right to be certain that they are feeding organic food to their families.”

Alfalfa is a key food for dairy cows, and unless cows are fed an organic diet, their milk cannot qualify to be Organically certified. Alfalfa, the fourth most-planted crop in the nation, could be changed forever if GE varieties are planted across the U.S., Straus says in a statement today.

The genetically engineered (GE), also known as genetically modified (GM), crops will inevitably contaminate organically grown crops as bees pollinate the fields, carrying the GE seeds to organic crops, and vice-versa. Bees and other pollinators make no distinctions, a fact of nature that could devastate organic crops, according to a new coalition of organic farmers and food producers that have united to oppose GE alfalfa and other GE crops that could soon be deregulated.

The coalition came together after the USDA’s January decision to release Monsanto’s GE alfalfa — which has been engineered to be treated with the pesticide Round Up — from government restrictions.  Members say that the GE crops will impair the ability of both organic and conventional farmers to use GE-free seeds, because the GE crops will drift into neighboring fields and alter the genetics of the crops. This seed “drift” has been well-documented by growers whose operations were accidentally infiltrated. Ironically, Monsanto has sued farmers whose fields were contaminated for “taking” these proprietary GE seeds, even though the farmers say they did not seek to use the Monsanto seeds.

The anticipated widespread use of GE alfalfa, which would likely contaminate organic and non-GE fields across the nation, could cause “irreparable harm to organic farmers by ruining our ability to supply organic foods to customers,” Staus explained in a statement today.

“Contaminated alfalfa leads to contaminated milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, as well as any other products containing dairy ingredients,” he said. ”Organic consumers have little tolerance for genetically modified foods. Polls show that one major reason consumers buy organic foods is to avoid GM ingredients. More than 75% of consumers believe they are purchasing products without GM ingredients when they buy organic foods.

In 2006, Straus Family Creamery became the first organic dairy to voluntarily test organic cattle feed, an experiment that uncovered a problem with some seed corn being contaminated with GMOs, even though the organic corn growers were unaware of the problem.

Straus developed its own testing system to assure the purity of the food chain, and now carries the “Non-GMO Project Seal,” which assures consumers that the dairy cows are not eating GMO foods.

The California dairy, and the Center for Food Safety, among others have been fighting the approval of GM alfalfa in the courts since 2006. The same groups intend to take the issue back to the courts, to fight the recent USDA decision.

In a 2009 report, the USDA called Organic milk production “one of the fastest growing segments of organic agriculture in the United States” spurred by rising consumer demand. Demand for organic milk, which costs more than conventionally produced milk, has tapered off during this recession.

About 2,000 dairies produce certified Organic milk in the U.S. They tend to have a smaller number of cows, from 50 to 150, and many are family operated or owned by coops of farmers.

The 2009 USDA report polled farmers on the difficulties of starting or maintaining an organic dairy. The operators said that extensive certification paperwork, and finding finding organic feed and organically raised heifers, were their top headaches. These findings suggest that dairy farmers could experience a double-whammy if organic feedstock becomes even more difficult to source because of GE contamination.

Organic dairies have also been buffeted by infighting over how cows are treated on small operations compared to large industrial operations. Some of the large dairies were found to be providing “access to pasture”, as required by law, instead of assuring their cows had outdoor grazing time, which many organic proponents say increases the health of the cows and the milk.

The government recently tightened the rules about pasturing.

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