Organic Farmers Fear Spread of Genetically Altered Alfalfa

WISCONSIN - Wisconsin is a long way from the Pacific Northwest, but Coon Valley farmer Jim Munsch worries that genetically engineered alfalfa grown there could contaminate his farm and harm his organic beef business.
calendar icon 19 September 2007
clock icon 5 minute read

Alfalfa is used for livestock feed. Almost all of the seed comes from a concentration of growers in states such as Montana and Washington.

Munsch worries that genetically engineered alfalfa, called Roundup Ready, threatens to contaminate alfalfa seed farms in the Northwest and ruin traditional strains of the ubiquitous crop nationwide.

Other Wisconsin farmers worry that cross-pollination could occur in their own backyard if genetically engineered alfalfa spreads from field to field.

Either event could be very harmful for the fast-growing organic food industry nationwide.

It could scare away customers who pay premiums for food that's raised naturally without the use of biotechnology.

"If I were forced to feed a genetically modified crop to my animals, it would violate the trust I have with my customers," Munsch said. "They have formed opinions about what they will and won't eat. And one of those opinions is that anything genetically modified is not appropriate" in the food chain.

Roundup Ready alfalfa, from Monsanto Co., is genetically engineered to resist herbicides. It means that farmers can use Roundup Ready herbicide in their alfalfa fields to kill weeds but not harm the crop.

"From a conventional grower's perspective, there's really no down side to it," said Dan Undersander, a University of Wisconsin Extension agronomist.

But earlier this year, a U.S. District Court judge in San Francisco barred the planting of genetically altered alfalfa nationwide until the government can adequately study the crop's potential impact on organic and conventional varieties.

Judge Charles Breyer sided with organic farmers who feared lost sales if their crops were accidentally contaminated by genetically engineered plants through pollination by bees and the wind.

"The harm to these farmers and consumers who do not want to purchase genetically engineered alfalfa, or animals fed with such alfalfa, outweighs the economic harm to Monsanto," Breyer wrote.

Cross-pollination fight

The ruling was considered a triumph for anti-biotech crusaders who have fought the proliferation of genetically engineered crops.

Last month, the USDA established a telephone hotline that informs farmers where Roundup Ready alfalfa was planted in Wisconsin and other states, before the ban. One of the worries is that fields of the genetically altered plants could contaminate other fields through cross-pollination.

"As a perennial crop that is insect pollinated, genetically engineered alfalfa presents much greater risk of contamination of conventional plantings than other crops," said Laura Paine, an organic specialist with the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

The court ruling provides some protections for organic farmers and others wanting to avoid growing genetically engineered crops, according to Paine.

"If pollen blows in from a couple of miles away, you can have contamination," she said. "Over the long term, it would be very easy for plants to seed themselves and eventually have the genetically modified material incorporated into them."

Officials estimate that about 13,000 acres worth of Roundup Ready alfalfa seed was sold to Wisconsin farmers in 2006. That's a small fraction of the alfalfa grown here, according to state Agriculture Department officials, but the seed has been used in 52 counties.

Wisconsin has a large presence in organic farming, including the Cooperative Regions of Organic Producer Pools, headquartered in La Farge. The co-op, which sells milk, cheese, meat and other products under the Organic Valley brand, represents more than 800 farmers in 24 states, and in 2005 posted sales of $245 million.

Entire markets could be shut off to organic farmers if they raised animals with genetically modified feed, said David Bruce, an Organic Valley program director.

Genetically engineered alfalfa has probably already contaminated some traditional alfalfa fields, said Mark Kastel with the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based group that embraces organic farming.

"It's genetic trespassing," he said. "Alfalfa is pollinated by bees, and these little suckers can travel for miles."

Defending modified crop

Biotech advocates say the fears about genetically engineered alfalfa are largely unfounded.

If farmers follow Monsanto's planting and harvesting instructions, they say there's very little chance of cross- pollination with another alfalfa field. Pollen drift from one field to another is a minor issue, according to Undersander.

"You would have to use very sloppy, poor farming techniques before there would be a risk," he said. "There's some risk with everything. But it's like saying you shouldn't cross the street because you might get hit by a car."

Monsanto officials say they're confident that farmers will be able to use Roundup Ready alfalfa again once the USDA completes a court-ordered environmental impact study in the next couple of years. The product is safe and never should have been banned, according to the company.

"There are no human health or animal health concerns," said Michael Doane, Monsanto's director of public affairs.

A University of Minnesota study found that dairy cattle fed Roundup Ready alfalfa produced an average of 8,204 pounds of milk per acre of feed, compared with 7,568 pounds per acre from conventional alfalfa - an 8% difference.

"For a lot of dairymen, Roundup Ready herbicide is a good tool because it's a cheap and easy way to control weeds," Undersander said.

Long term, the debate boils down to farmers respecting each other's choices, said Tom Thieding, spokesman for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation.

"A lot of this is common sense, so that you allow someone to use the latest approved technologies while not hampering others who use different practices," he said. "It's no different than a farmer spraying a wheat field for weevils next to an organic wheat field that doesn't use pesticides. There are some things you have to be careful with."

Copyright 2007, Journal Sentinel Inc. All rights reserved. (Note: This notice does not apply to those news items already copyrighted and received through wire services or other media.)

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