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Field of Schemes

How GMO Alfalfa Messed Up a Perfectly Good Thing

Most of us don’t think about alfalfa very much. Outside of agricultural communities and die-hard fans, it is safe to say alfalfa is not a hot topic. We’d like to challenge that notion. Bear with us:

In the US, alfalfa is grown on roughly 23 million acres annually, most of which is harvested for animal feed. 

Alfalfa is a unique crop: it forms remarkably dense, tall plants that naturally crowd out weeds. Historically, 93% of pre-GMO alfalfa was grown without herbicides. So it’s a bit of a head-scratcher as to why GMO alfalfa, developed specifically for tolerance to the herbicide glyphosate (the key ingredient in Roundup) was developed at all.

If weeds weren’t a big problem in the first place, why bring unnecessary chemical inputs into alfalfa fields?

The answer: corporate profit.

After its initial market introduction, GMO alfalfa was sporadically planted while environmental groups battled in court with government agencies. Deregulation was followed by planting, followed by a moratorium on planting, then environmental assessments, and round and round for the next 6 years.

In 2005, then-Inspector General of the USDA stated, "current regulations, policies, and procedures do not go far enough to ensure the safe introduction of agricultural biotechnology."  

While this may have seemed like a win for the growing non-GMO movement, the genie was already out of the bottle.

Alfalfa is a perennial crop, sown once every 5-7 years, and pollinated by bees. After Roundup Ready GMO seed was introduced, the spread of GMO plants to organic and conventional non-GMO farms was inevitable. Such contamination events pose serious threats to alfalfa farmers, who may lose non-GMO and organic status or be excluded from global markets.

In 2011, the legal wrangling over GMO alfalfa ultimately landed on the side of Monsanto lobbyists, and in a tragic case of “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” the adoption of herbicide-tolerant GMO alfalfa spiked.

The modus operandi for biotechnology corporations goes something like this:

  1. Create a genetically modified organism.
  2. Create the chemical inputs that go with it.
  3. Get farmers hooked on a treadmill of increasing inputs and degraded soil health.
  4. Repeat.

To get us all caught up, here’s a basic plot summary of alfalfa drama, 2005-2013:

  • Non-GMO alfalfa was working pretty well, to begin with. Monsanto was not addressing a need but creating a market to sell more herbicides.

  • Alfalfa and bees rely upon each other for reproduction.

  • Contamination pressures forced more and more farmers to adopt GMO alfalfa.

  • Fast forward 8 years, 3 million acres of alfalfa fields that provided animal feed and bee forage without the use of GMOs or the herbicides are now doused in glyphosate.

  • Wild bees and domesticated honey bees continue to visit their favorite purple flowers. As Roundup Ready GMO alfalfa use spreads, so do glyphosate applications that can make bees sick. 

What about the bees?

During the same time period, bee populations faced a steep decline. A phenomenon is known as “colony collapse disorder” appeared in North America in 2006, in which a seemingly healthy honey bee colony suddenly loses its worker bee population. Without worker bees collecting nectar, the remaining queen and nurse bees cannot survive.

Unable to trace the cause of bees’ suffering to a single source, researchers now suspect a combination of factors may be at play. Surely eliminating threats that we know about, such as glyphosate use on bee-pollinated plants, is a step in the right direction.

The future of agriculture, and of the planet itself, depends on widening the lens through which we view our world. The challenges we are facing as a species are complex and interconnected. It will take all of us to meet them.

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