Sunday, 2 October 2011

GM Alfalfa: Changing the Future of Dairy and Organic Farming?

With “World Food Day” approaching - October 16th - I thought it was timely to bring up some of the more ‘global’ issues reaching our ‘local’ food systems.

Let’s explore what COWS, BEES, and MONSANTO have in common.

The answer is ALFALFA!

Alfalfa Plants (photo courtesy of
Some may be thinking, so what? I don’t eat much alfalfa myself. But, if you eat chicken eggs, cheese, ice cream, or cows, you do eat alfalfa. Alfalfa is used as cow and chicken feed. In fact, it is the backbone of the dairy industry. Alfalfa also creates its own natural fertilizer. It captures nitrogen from the atmosphere and makes it available in the soil. This makes alfalfa a key resource for organic farmers who do not use chemical fertilizers.

Alfalfa Hay
The dairy industry, and organic farming in general, is about to change drastically with the proliferation of genetically modified alfalfa, aka GM alfalfa. GM alfalfa seed is the project of a multinational company, Monsanto. GM alfalfa was once banned in the USA, but courts have recently overturned this ban. GM alfalfa is not yet legal in Canada, but a quick Google search, or conversation with a Canadian farmer, will reveal that the pressure is on

We know the links between dairy, Monsanto and alfalfa, now where do bees fit in this equation?

Bees pollinate alfalfa. Once a GM bee-pollinated crop is let loose there is no turning back (recent history tells this story for GM canola). Bees go everywhere; therefore, so does the pollen they collect and exchange among distant plants. An exchange of pollen from a GM plant to a non-GM plant can result in the exchange of genetic material. Successful exchange of genes means that the seeds of a new plant generation in the non-GM fields may be genetically modified (aka “genetic contamination”). Because bee pollinated crops are at high risks of genetic contamination, even farmers who want to avoid these GM plants often can’t. For certified organic farmers, the introduction of GM alfalfa is particularly alarming.  As you may know, organic certification prohibits the use of genetically modified seeds. Therefore, farmers that rely on non-GM alfalfa can run the risk of losing their certification if they are found with GM plants in their farms.  

Organic Alfalfa Put To Use!

What is GM Alfalfa?

Like other Monsanto-modified seeds, such as soy or canola, GM alfalfa is genetically altered to be resistant to a broad-spectrum herbicide. This herbicide called “Roundup” – also produced by Monsanto - is marketed because of its chemical capacity to kill weeds. “Roundup Ready” crops can be sprayed with the herbicide Roundup to support industrial-scale crop production (on the short-term). Although GM crops are resistant to herbicides, components of such herbicides (e.g., glycophosphates) can affect other life forms, such as aquatic organisms, as well as soil system complexes. 

Canadian farmers I’ve spoken to see no reason for GM alfalfa. They also view Monsanto as the only beneficiary. First, this company will benefit because the use of their seeds goes hand in hand with the use of their Roundup chemicals. Second, Monsanto holds the patent, thus the legal rights to control the GM seeds (and the herbicide-resistant genes for that matter). Therefore, once crops become contaminated with GM genes, farmers are no longer owners of their crops. This prevents farmers from saving-seeds after harvests, and implies the need to purchase new seeds from companies each year. The implications of this cannot be overstated. For millennia farmers have saved and traded seed maintaining natural sources of diversity. In the words of Bartlett and Steele, “Monsanto has turned this ancient practice on its head.”

One farmer I spoke to sees a benefit in GM crops.  This Manitoban said that his “Certified Local Sustainable” bee farm is stuck in a sea of crop monocultures frequently sprayed with pesticides. In his opinion, GM crops have resulted in less frequent spraying of herbicides because GM crops have a high level of pest resistance. He said that less spraying has resulted in his bees picking up fewer chemicals. We ended our discussion on the note that more attention to GM crops is needed, especially because the human experience with GM crops is extremely limited.

This begs the question, why are we modifying crops in the first place? Or similarly, why are we growing so much of the same thing?

Being that there is strong political and economic support for seed modification, I am curious what support exists for those that explore alternatives to GM seeds. If you weren’t sure how to contribute on “World Food Day”, here is an issue we can talk about. If anyone has any GM crop-related comments, please feel free to post them here, or to e-mail me.

Also, in light of World Food Day, I hope to post a few short posts related to unique projects seeking alternatives to industrial food production. Any ideas? Send them my way!


Relyea, R. (2005). THE LETHAL IMPACT OF ROUNDUP ON AQUATIC AND TERRESTRIAL AMPHIBIANS Ecological Applications, 15 (4), 1118-1124 DOI: 10.1890/04-1291

Doublet, J., Mamy, L., & Barriuso, E. (2009). Delayed degradation in soil of foliar herbicides glyphosate and sulcotrione previously absorbed by plants: Consequences on herbicide fate and risk assessment Chemosphere, 77 (4), 582-589 DOI: 10.1016/j.chemosphere.2009.06.044


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