GM Alfalfa Creeps Back into the News

January 28, 2011

This from Barry Estabrook, former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine and now regular contributor to the the New York Times, the Washington Post, and

“On Thursday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that the United State Department of Agriculture (USDA) had approved the unrestricted planting of genetically modified alfalfa sold by Monsanto Co. and Forge Genetics, despite protests from organic groups and public health advocates and comments from nearly 250,000 citizens asking the department to keep this GMO genie in its bottle. With this announcement, the Obama administration showed whose side it is on in the battle between proponents of sustainable, organic agriculture and the big businesses that profit from conventional, chemical agriculture. Big Ag won. It wasn’t even close.”

Idaho is at the center of this issue.  Here’s an Edible Idaho interview I did back in 2007 with writer Matt Jenkins, who had recently written a story on the controversy over genetically modified alfalfa for High Country News.  As you’ll see, genetically modified crops are as contentious today as they were back then.

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There’s a drama playing out in an unlikely place: the alfalfa fields of southern Idaho.  It pits farmer against farmer in a struggle that could shape the future of American agriculture.  In this installment of Edible Idaho, correspondent Guy Hand talks to writer Matt Jenkins about  genetically modified alfalfa—and Idaho’s role in it’s creation and current ban.

Jenkins: Alfalfa is pretty fascinating stuff and I missed a lot of freeway exits the past month and a half working on this story because I was sort of thinking about the drama involved . . .

Until his recent trip to Idaho, writer Matt Jenkins didn’t connect alfalfa to words like “fascinating.”

Jenkins: I grew up in Nevada and they grow quite a bit there too and . . . I mean it’s alfalfa, it’s not a very sexy crop.

“Alfalfa is the fourth largest crop grown in America and Idaho is the nation’s third largest producer, but alfalfa sprouts and cattle feed don’t often fire up the emotions . . . Until you add another word: “Roundup.”

Jenkins: Roundup Ready technology is found in a pretty broad array of crops now.  It was originally developed in corn and soy beans in the ’90s.

“Roundup Ready” is the name biotech giant Monsanto gave it’s ever expanding line of genetically modified, or GM, crops.  Monsanto inserts a bacteria gene into plants to protect them from the company’s popular herbicide Roundup.  In 1998, Monsanto turned its attention to alfalfa and that’s where Idaho enters the stage.

Jenkins: Yea, Idaho is basically ground zero for Roundup Ready alfalfa.

In 1998, Forge Genetics, a company in Nampa, began engineering alfalfa for Monsanto.  In 2005, a Melba farmer was the first in the country to grow it commercially.  There are now 220,000 acres of Roundup Ready alfalfa planted across the U.S., many of those fields in Idaho.

Jenkins: A field of genetically modified alfalfa does look pretty different from a field of conventional alfalfa.  A lot of the fields I had seen had been sprayed fairly recently with Roundup and so you really would see—it’s almost like an advertisement for Monsanto—you would see these fields that are just full of alfalfa and nothing else

There’s no question that this bio-technology works.  Roundup Ready alfalfa flourishes; weeds don’t.  And like other GM crops, that can save a great deal of time, money, and labor.

Jenkins: A lot of growers in Idaho have been saying it’s hard to get all of the farm hands that they need because of immigration crackdowns and things like that . . . Being able to grow Roundup Ready alfalfa has really helped them out on the labor front pretty tremendously.

But genetically modified plants can also sprout problems.  Scientists have found Roundup resistant weeds, so called super weeds, popping up in GM crops.  Another problem—which may be particularly significant with alfalfa—is called transgenic creep, the unintended drift of genetically modified plant material to other plants.

Jenkins: Transgenic creep is sort of where the other shoe drops with all of this.

Genetically modified alfalfa is proving hard to contain.  Good old, genetically untinkered-with alfalfa, is adaptable and it likes to roam, through the spread of pollen and seed : it pops up in the median strip on the interstate, in abandoned lots that haven’t seen a sprinkler in years, even, you may have noticed, in your own backyard.  Roundup Ready alfalfa can spread too.  That has conventional and organic alfalfa growers—those whose livelihoods depend on raising a GM-free crop—very, very worried.

Jenkins: People knew this was an issue, Monsanto knew this was an issue from the beginning . . . and put in some safe guards to try and isolate the genetically modified crops from conventional and organic, but there’s evidence there too that the isolation distances that everyone agreed on just weren’t enough.

In Idaho, a 900 foot separation between Roundup Ready and unmodified alfalfa was thought to prevent cross-contamination.   But . . .

Jenkins:. . . even in 2005, the same year that this stuff was approved for commercial planting, there’s some evidence from independent seed companies that their seed stock was getting contaminated by the Roundup Ready gene.  This is something that a lot of the farmers I spoke to in Idaho are really divided about and created some fairly serious tension between farmers who’ve lived next to each, right side by side for years and years.

This tension between neighbors is another problem growing around biotech agriculture.  Farmers who chose not to plant Roundup Ready seed feel threatened by neighbors who do.  Matt Jenkins found this loss of community to be one of his saddest finding.

Jenkins: There’s just this feeling among farmers who I talked to that there’s something kind of surreal going on . . .  Suddenly just the very nature of what they’re growing is changing and they don’t have any say in it.  . . . and it’s a very unsettling feeling for these guys . . .

This tendency for GM crops to creep over property lines not only harms friendships. Jenkins writes, in a 2007 article for High Country News, that it could actually erase, “the line between what is natural and what is not,”  One conventional alfalfa grower in Idaho decided to defend that line between the natural and the manmade—by fighting the introduction of genetically modified alfalfa.

Jenkins: Last year . . . a guy named Phil Geertson who is an alfalfa grower in Greenleaf near Nampa and then the Center for Food Safety, which is kind of a biotech watchdog, filed a lawsuit against the department of agriculture basically saying the federal government didn’t do an adequate analysis of the environmental impacts . . .

Early this year a district court judge in San Francisco agreed, ruling that Roundup Ready alfalfa should not have been approved without a thorough study of it’s effects on the environment.  That study could take a couple of years to complete.  Until then, new plantings of Roundup Ready alfalfa have been banned.

Jenkins: So this has kind of rocked the world of alfalfa growers.  But . . . it could have fairly big implications for the entire line of Roundup Ready crops.

Although this federal ruling could slow the biotech industry down, Jenkins sees advantages in tapping the brakes on a technology that has moved faster and farther than most Americans realize.

Jenkins: Going to Idaho and doing this story and talking to all the folks there who are growing alfalfa, I’m not convinced that any of these genetically modified crops are sort of going to be the end of the world by any means.  But . . .

The rapidity that this has happened I think has been fairly unsettling for people and  . . . ten years ago this stuff didn’t exist and now today the vast majority of American agriculture is genetically modified crops.  It’s like half the corn is GM, 3 quarters of the cotton is genetically modified, 85% of the soybeans are genetically modified.  You know, even people who are growing it are kind of shocked by how quickly this has taken over.

Jenkins: Matt Jenkins thinks a full environmental impact study on Roundup Ready alfalfa would give farmers and consumers the chance to debate a complicated and poorly understood technology.

I think the debate would be healthy.  . . .

Jenkins: And timely.  Next year Monsanto is scheduled to release another genetically modified crop that could also impact Idaho agriculture: Roundup Ready sugar beets.  For Boise State Radio, I’m Guy Hand.

Here are several articles on the recent lifting of the ban on genetically modified alfalfa:

Washington Post

Politics of the Plate


Civil Eats

The New York Times

About Guy Hand:
Guy Hand is a writer, public radio producer and photographer specializing in food and agriculture.
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One Response to GM Alfalfa Creeps Back into the News

  1. Jeremy Bloom on January 31, 2011 at 6:25 am

    The next lawsuit is ready to go: the Center For Food Safety, which has a history of taking on Monsanto and winning, says it’s ready with the next round of litigation to block this.

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