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Organic Animal Agriculture Threatened by Genetically Engineered Alfalfa
By now many farmers producing organic milk or meat from ruminants have seen the news about the federal court ruling that the USDA violated the law by failing to conduct a full Environmental Impact Study before approving Monsanto’s genetically engineered alfalfa trademarked Roundup Ready®. The judge’s latest ruling in the case bans any further planting of the GE seed until the USDA conducts a complete Environmental Impact Statement on the GE crop.
Genetically modified alfalfa presents significantly different challenges than any other previous GE crop introduction. These differences mean the introduction of GE alfalfa could have significant economic impact on producers of organic forage and animal products. The differences directly relate to the biological differences between alfalfa and the grain crops and the way seed is produced.
One key difference between the grain crops and alfalfa is the distance over which pollen is carried. Alfalfa is pollinated by bees carrying pollen from one plant to another, whereas the grain crops are pollinated by the action of gravity and air movement. Research and practical experience have shown that bees can carry pollen for a range of more than 2 miles, which is much farther than wind-carried pollen.
Another key difference between the two is that seeds for grain crops are grown over large geographic areas, whereas a large proportion of all alfalfa seed is grown within compact geographic areas in a handful of Western states. This is due to climate, topography, and soil type.
The result of these two important differences is that there is a high probability that cross-pollination will cause significant contamination of non-GE alfalfa seed with GE alfalfa genetics in a matter of years. In other words, there will eventually be no truly non-GE or organic alfalfa seed. This makes the GE alfalfa issue much different for organic producers than the GE grain issue was.
In fact, where this GM alfalfa is raised, glyphosate-resistant alfalfa is likely to become a significant weed problem for all producers of conventional alfalfa or alfalfa seed. For example if there is a seed company promoting seed that can work in the typical system where glyphosate is used to terminate a worn-out stand of alfalfa, contamination with the glyphosate-resistant strain would make their product unacceptable. Two of the plaintiffs in the case against the USDA are conventional alfalfa seed producers.
These facts were known at the time the USDA first deregulated Roundup Ready alfalfa and approved it for sale. The Department declared that non-GE alfalfa producers should be expected to protect the genetic integrity of their seed by providing buffer belts. This language came from the approval of GE grain crops, where this is generally a reasonable, effective means of protecting non-GE crops from contamination. With pollen transport measured in miles and not feet, however, it is no longer a viable method. Taken literally this would mean that an organic alfalfa seed producer would either require control over land in a two- or three-mile radius surrounding the fields where the seed is produced or would need to grow it in a greenhouse. These methods are not economically feasible.
The USDA also recognized there would be contamination but still stated that non-GE alfalfa seed would “likely” be available for those who wanted it. Respected people in the alfalfa seed business say this is not the case, and that it will be difficult, at best, to find areas in which to grow non-GE-contaminated seed with any certainty. Undoubtedly, the “safe” areas found will be in different locations than are currently used, requiring non-GE seed producers move their operations. The financial risks involved in relocating non-GE seed production is an unknown. If such areas can be found, it is certain that the cost of production and the price of the seed will be increased.
One possibility might be seed grown in foreign countries that have legislated against all GE crops and have the climates, soils, and topography suitable for alfalfa seed production. However, it is reasonable to expect that the cost of transporting and importing will be high, and flexibility of supply limited.
For organic forage and livestock producers the stakes are high. The introduction of a genetically engineered alfalfa in the United States would quickly lead to either no organic seed being available, or seed available at very high prices from limited U.S. growing areas or from international sources. These alternatives are not attractive.
We could eliminate alfalfa from our production systems. But the most likely replacements are the clovers, which have significantly lower yields. In addition, the highest-yielding clover with comparable protein is red clover, and it is a biennial requiring reseeding every two years in the best case. This alternative would increase cost significantly because of the need to harvest more acres to get the same total yield and because of at least double the cost of establishment due the short life of the plant. Those who are old enough to remember making clover hay can think of a whole host of reasons to avoid this alternative.
Or is the assumption at the USDA that organic producers could “just live with it?” This may, indeed be the case. There is a certain hubris in the areas of government dealing with food production and safety that the desires of consumers don’t count—that consumers don’t understand nor should they be bothered with how food is produced. But the organic movement is built on the purchases of consumers who do understand and who do bother to know how their food is produced. And these consumers have spoken loudly with their purchases that they do not want genetically altered food and that they don’t want to buy meat or dairy products from animals that have been raised on genetically altered food.
By Jim Munsch. Mr. Munsch is a certified organic livestock producer from Coon Valley, Wisconsin and member of The Cornucopia Institute. He was the group’s representative in the lawsuit successfully brought against the USDA for its illegal approval of genetically altered alfalfa.