Genetically engineered crops: As bad as they seem?

I got an e-mail alert from Stonyfield this afternoon stating that the USDA announced a decision on Jan. 27 that will “deregulate” genetically engineered (GE) or genetically modified (GMO) alfalfa. Just in time for spring planting, farmers will be able to grow this year’s alfalfa crop from biotech seeds. GE alfalfa is resistant to Roundup® herbicide (called Roundup Ready) and is being called mutant alfalfa by some. While I don’t directly consume alfalfa, it is a staple for cows, and I do eat beef and drink milk. I’m a big fan of organic products (even though I can’t always afford them!) and don’t really like the idea of not knowing and therefore not having a choice when it comes to items that may be genetically modified. We’ve all heard about seed giant, Monsanto and its use of biotechnology in the soybean industry. The beneficiary of GE alfalfa (surprise, surprise) is again Monsanto. “This is great news for farmers who have been waiting for the green light to plant Roundup Ready alfalfa,” said Steve Welker, alfalfa commercial lead at Monsanto. Of course, it is.

Alfalfa field (From http://www.plantmanagementnetwork.org/elements/view.aspx?id=315)

Alfalfa field (From http://www.plantmanagementnetwork.org/elements/view.aspx?id=315)

According to the blog Green Talk, “Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) is an important perennial forage crop used around the world. [It] is the fourth largest crop, in terms of acreage, grown in the United States behind corn, soybeans, and wheat. Not only is alfalfa used as forage for beef cattle, it is used as feed for dairy cows due to alfalfa’s high levels of protein, calcium, and high quality fiber.” Basically it is easy to grow and serves as a good source of nutrition for cattle. Stonyfield believes that GE crops result “in significantly higher uses of toxic herbicides and water, creating a new generation of costly “super” weeds; pose severe and irreversible threats to biodiversity and seed stocks; do not live up to the superior yield claims of their patent holders; and are unaffordable for small family farmers in the US and around the world.” Samuel Fromartz of The Atlantic wrote a great post today titled “Why You Should Care About Genetically Modified Alfalfa” that breaks down how the USDA’s decision will impact consumers and organic farmers in lay terms.

This isn’t just about being able to purchase pure, organic food and/or establish some control over the big biotech corporations, it’s also about the ripple effect these types of policy decisions can have on farmers and the environment. GE/GMO alfalfa probably isn’t good for the cows that eat it or the people who eat the cows. It definitely isn’t good for naturally occurring alfalfa or those who wish to continue growing non-GE alfalfa. Despite claims that gene flow between fields isn’t possible because alfalfa is harvested long before the ripe seed stage (mandatory distances between fields is also being used as a way to dismiss concerns), it’s hard to believe that there won’t be any negative outcomes as a result of the USDA’s pronouncement. Forcing any kind of GE/GMO crop on the world presents a whole host of problems on all points of the spectrum and should be thought about long and hard as many players can and will suffer the decision.

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