GE Alfalfa Factsheet

Biotech Warning! Dairy Farmers, Ranchers, Bee Keepers, Horse Breeders, Conservationists, & Pet Owners!

Monsanto Wins Final USDA Approval for “Round-Up Ready” Alfalfa.   Farmer Lawsuit and Consumer Boycott Likely

On April 16th, 2004 Monsanto submitted a federal petition for commercial introduction of “Round-Up Ready” (RR) alfalfa in the U.S, and after a sixty day public comment period the USDA determined that this herbicide resistant alfalfa variety would have no significant environmental impact, formally approving its commercial introduction in June 2005.

Given that alfalfa is a common perennial forage and cover crop used in a wide variety of animal feeds and even eaten by humans, this latest move by Monsanto to bring another genetically modified organism (GMO) to market rang alarm bells across rural America.  On February 16th, 2006 the Center for Food Safety, along with other non-profit organizations and alfalfa farmers, filed a lawsuit in the Northern District of California (Geertson Seed Farms et al v. Mike Johanns et al ) to challenge the USDA’s deregulation. The complaint asserts that the USDA violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Plant Protection Act (PPA), and that approval of RR alfalfa should be withheld until a full environmental impact statement has (EIS) been concluded.

On Jan. 27, 2011 the  USDA completed this court-mandated EIS and – despite receiving over 200,000 public comments in opposition – chose to approve GE alfalfa.  Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack went even further and called for “coexistence” among biotech, organic, and conventional farmers, setting a likely regulatory precedent for future USDA approval for all other genetically modified organisms.  This position is clearly unacceptable for many farmers and consumers, especially without mandatory GE labeling and the inability to avoid contamination.   It is expected that this USDA decision will be challenged in federal court, and many family farm and consumer groups will be boycotting GE alfalfa and its corporate promoters.

What will be the impact on animals that now consume alfalfa – from cows and horses to chickens and bees?  Will there be adverse health impacts downstream in the human food supply?  What about the environmental consequences?  Could this latest herbicide resistant GMO crop jeopardize the longterm utility of glyphosate (aka “Round-Up”) as “super weeds” emerge?  Will alfalfa, itself, become an invasive plant largely immune to conventional control techniques?  If there are problems, who will assume liability – the manufacturer, the distributor, the farmer,  the consumer?  Many of these questions have yet to be resolved – and should have been  – before Monsanto was permitted to bring its latest genetically engineered product  into U.S. agriculture.

Background:

Alfalfa is considered the best available animal feed for ruminants and is critical to the dairy industry, providing up to a third of crude protein, half of the calcium, and a quarter of the energy needed on a daily basis by a typical cow.  Other livestock sectors that rely upon alfalfa include beef cattle, sheep, chickens, turkeys, and horses.  Pelletized alfalfa is a common component of many pet foods for everything from iguanas and parakeets to hamsters and rabbits.  Alfalfa also produces a large amount of nectar, up to 1900 pounds per acre, which is why it is so popular amongst beekeepers.  In turn, honey bees, alkali bees, and leaf cutter bees are important pollinators for alfalfa producers.

Dubbed “Queen of the Forages,” alfalfa is a perennial herbaceous legume, known as Lucerne in many other countries, originally from the European Caucasus and Central Asia.  Since its introduction to North America, alfalfa has been among the top four field crops in the U.S. (along with corn, soy, and wheat).  In 2004 the USDA estimated that 77.4 million tons was produced on 22.2 million acres, with an additional 88.5 million tons of alfalfa mixed hay produced on another 39.4 million acres.  About 7% of alfalfa seed in the U.S. is also eaten directly by humans in the form of sprouts, and such natural food consumers are highly wary of potential GMO contamination.

Monsanto began work on RR alfalfa in 1998 in collaboration with researchers at Montana State University and soon there were other field trials underway at public research facilities and land grant colleges in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana, Iowa, and Idaho. In 1999, Monsanto officially licensed its RR technology for use on alfalfa to Forage Genetics, Land O’Lakes’ primary seed research partner.  Land O’Lakes is among the major dairy co-ops in the U.S. and has been a major advocate of GMOs since the FDA’s controversial approval of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) back in the early 1990s.  As of fall 2005 RR alfalfa was already for sale under the Croplan Genetics brand through Cenex Harvest States and Land O’Lakes’ Farmland Industries, and other licensed brandnames soon appeared offered by such companies as Americas Alfalfa, Dairyland Seed, Garst Seed, Northrup-King, Allied Seeds, Pioneer, Cal/West Seeds, W-L Research, and Trelay Seeds.

According to a Northrup-King (subsidiary of Sygenta) ad for its “Liberator” RR alfalfa seed in the April 2006 edition of the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin (PPDW) newsletter, “Liberator combines superior genetics with Round up Ready Technology for more tons of weed free alfalfa.  In addition to exceptional yield, quality, and persistence, Liberator offers more enhanced stand establishment, more yield, and better quality in the seeding year and flexible weed control options to keep your stand clean.”

Concerns with Roundup Ready Alfalfa:

1.  Increasing Monsanto Control Over Farmers

Like Monsanto’s other biotech varieties, farmers who use RR alfalfa will never own the plant or the seed.  Instead, they will be leasing a product under a one-sided technology use agreement (TUA) with many restrictions.  For instance, Monsanto reserves the right under these contracts to physically inspect (i.e. trespass) and remove crop samples to insure compliance. In North America, Monsanto has a long history of sending “extortion” letters to farmers whose fields tested positive for their other GMO crop varieties, threatening lawsuits if they did not pay for their “use” of the patent.

Herbicide resistant GMO crop varieties are widely perceived by farmers as just another way to encourage dependence on expensive inputs.  Predictably enough, the introduction of RR varieties led to a five-fold increase in glyphosate use across the U.S.  Because alfalfa is perennial and often grown for 3-5 years in a row, the introduction of RR alfalfa could well increase overall herbicide use  – by an estimated 200,000 more pounds per year in California alone.

In fact, Croplan Genetics application guidelines encourage farmers to use Roundup on RR alfalfa even when no weeds are present:  “So why spray whether there are weeds or not?  Not all of the seedlings established by Roundup Ready Alfalfa seed sources will be Roundup resistant.  Up to 10% of the seed will produce none resistant plants.  These seedlings are no different than weeds in the fact that they are competing for nutrients, sunlight, water and space; therefore, optimum stand establishment is best achieved by controlling both weeds and non-Roundup Ready alfalfa plants early.”

As with other GMO crops, the promised yield gains and cost savings may not materialize, leaving farmers holding the bag for the higher seed price that always comes with Monsanto’s patented technologies.  Currently, the tech fee per 50-lb bag of RR alfalfa is $125 east of the Rockies and $150 west of the Rockies.  For a typical Midwest farmer, seeding at 12 lbs/acre, this translates into an extra $30 per acre above conventional alfalfa seed prices.

2. Potential Loss of Foreign Markets

An estimated 5% of U.S. alfalfa production is exported – 2.9 million metric tones in 2002 alone worth $480 million.  About 75% of this forage market is in Japan where consumer awareness and resistance to GMOs is high. The European Union (EU) is also moving towards labeling and traceability of all GMOs, including animals that consume GMO as part of their diet.  It is likely that products derived from animals fed RR alfalfa could be subject to labeling and thus lead to a further decline in U.S. agricultural exports.  In fall 2005 Monsanto announced it had already obtained permission for export of RR alfalfa into Mexico, and that it was also negotiating with officials in Canada, Japan, Korea and Taiwan to do likewise.  Forcing countries to accept U.S. biotech crops is now part and parcel of various “free trade” deals, including the Korea US FTA and the broader Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).

3. Contamination of Non-GMO Animal Feed

As has been well documented in the case of Bt corn and RR canola, there is potential for “genetic flow” between fields planted with RR alfalfa and other nearby non-GMO alfalfa fields and pastures.  Besides wind, insects are particularly good at transporting pollen over long distance, and bees are known to travel several miles in search of alfalfa.  Most alfalfa hay is cut after some of blossoms have already produced pollen.  Alfalfa allowed to reproduce also yields some “hard seed” that can remain viable in soil for years.

This threat is of special concern to alfalfa seed growers and dairy/livestock producers who stand to lose their value-added markets and organic certification. Alfalfa seed production is concentrated in just a few northwestern states and provinces and could be vulnerable to genetic contamination.  For those farmers who rely on managed intensive rotational grazing (MIRG), Monsanto’s RR alfalfa offers no real benefits, since a healthy pasture has no real “weeds.”  In fact, straight alfalfa often yields less fodder per acre than more diverse forage systems.

4.  Creation of New Weed Management Problems

The main rationale offered by the biotech industry for introducing RR alfalfa is that it provides farmers with simpler weed suppression. This is in line with the vast majority of genetic research in agriculture (98% according to one recent USDA survey) geared towards making production easier, not necessarily to improve nutrition or protect the environment.  While there are currently 90 weeds identified for U.S. alfalfa (with 20 major herbicides applied in response), the actual adverse impact of weed pressure on alfalfa production is debatable and may be mostly limited to just a handful of specialized large-scale alfalfa operations in western states such as California.

As with other GMOs, though, there is a clear danger of “gene flow” between RR alfalfa and conventional alfalfa varieties, as well as between alfalfa and wild relatives, such as sickle medic (Medicago sativa spp. falcate), a common naturalized weed in North America.  Given the promiscuous genetic dominance of GMOs, this could mean rapid transfer of glyphosate resistance traits to other plants in the environment.

Those in the business of prairie restoration, as well as many conservationists and officials interested in controlling invasive plants on public and private lands, are concerned that the introduction of herbicide-resistance traits in a perennial like alfalfa could make their job more difficult.  As super weeds emerge, chemical control will have to shift to more toxic, persistent, and less desirable herbicides such as 2,4-D and Paraquat.

5. Unknown Environmental and Animal Health Impacts

The fact that alfalfa has a taproot up to 20 feet deep and complex symbiotic relationships with nitrogen-fixing bacteria exacerbates the potential environmental consequences.  Alfalfa is an important crop in many field rotations, contributing up to 200 kg of soil nitrogen per acre per year.  Researchers in Arkansas, though, have found an adverse impact on symbiotic nitrogen-fixing bacteria associated with soybeans after treatment with glyphosate.  Scientists have also noted an increase in the presence of the fungal disease, Fusarium, on RR crop varieties.  Impacts on other soil biota remain unknown.

Also largely unknown is the impact on animal health when GMOs constitute such a high percentage of the diet.  For instance, RR alfalfa would likely be added to a total mixed ration (TMR) for livestock that may already contain Bt corn, RR canola cake/meal, RR soy, and/or Bt cottonseed cake/meal.  What impact the addition of RR alfalfa will have on the intestinal flora/fauna in ruminants, their nutritional uptake, and susceptibility to pathogens is poorly understood and deserves further study.

Conclusion:

In weighing the relative costs and benefits of bringing GE alfalfa to market, many people remain unconvinced.  Is this latest patented variety really necessary for producing forage or is it just another market grab by agribusiness?  Are there not other weed control options for alfalfa that do not pose such serious threats to organic and conventional farmers in the U.S.?  Is Monsanto’s RR alfalfa just another expensive and dangerous biotech “solution” looking for a problem?  Apparently, the Obama administration is more interested in clearing the way for Monsanto’s profit margins than in safeguarding environmental quality, protecting consumer health, or defending sustainable agriculture.

Resources:

For a copy of the original lawsuit filed by the Center for Food Safety, visit:

http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/pubs/ComplaintAlfalfaAmended4.5.2006.pdf

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