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Synthesis/Regeneration 37   (Spring 2005)


Monsanto Seeks Alfalfa Patent

by John Peck

On April 16th, 2004, Monsanto submitted a federal petition for commercial introduction of “RoundUp Ready” (RR) alfalfa in the US. 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) into the world is now ringing alarm bells across rural America.

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 long- term utility of glyphosate (commonly known by its brand name, RoundUp) 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 be before Monsanto is permitted to bring its biotech alfalfa into US agriculture.

…Monsanto has a long history of sending “extortion” letters to farmers whose fields tested positive for their other GMO crop varieties…

Alfalfa is considered the best available 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 among 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, and is 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 US (along with corn, soy, and wheat).

In 2004, the USDA estimated that 77.4 million tons were 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 US is also eaten directly by humans in the form of sprouts, and 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 within a year there were field trials underway in Wisconsin, Indiana, Iowa, and Idaho. In 1999, Monsanto officially licensed its RR technology for use in alfalfa to Forage Genetics, Land O’Lakes’ primary seed research partner. Land O’Lakes is a major dairy co-op in the US 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. If approved, RR alfalfa will be sold under the Croplan Genetics brand through Cenex Harvest States and Land O’Lakes’ Farmland Industries.

RoundUp Ready alfalfa presents several issues:

Monsanto’s control over farmers

As with 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.

…the introduction of RR alfalfa could well increase overall herbicide use…

Herbicide resistant GMO crop varieties are widely perceived by farmers as just another way to encourage dependence on expensive inputs. The introduction of RR varieties led to a five-fold increase in glyphosate use across the US. 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. 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.

Loss of foreign markets

An estimated 5% of US alfalfa production is exported—2.9 million metric tons in 2002 alone, worth $480 million. About 75% of this forage market is in Japan where consumer awareness and resistance to GMOs are 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 US agricultural exports.

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 distances, and bees are known to travel several miles in search of alfalfa. Most alfalfa hay is cut after some blossoms have already produced pollen. Alfalfa allowed to reproduce also yields some “hard seed” that can remain viable in soil for years.

For many dairy farmers … Monsanto’s RR alfalfa offers no real benefits, since a healthy pasture has no real “weeds.”

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 many dairy 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.

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 improving nutrition or protecting the environment. While there are currently 90 weeds identified for US 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, a common naturalized weed in North America.

…there is a clear danger of “gene flow” between RR alfalfa and conventional alfalfa varieties…

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.

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.

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 and fauna in ruminants, their nutritional uptake and susceptibility to pathogens is poorly understood and deserves further study.

John E. Peck grew up on a 260-acre farm near Rockville, MN and is executive director of Family Farm Defenders, a national grassroots organization based in Madison, Wisc. See http://www.familyfarmdefenders.org

[26 mar 05]

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