The Common Good
May 2011

Frankenhay

by Bethany Spicher Schonberg | May 2011

Genetically modified  alfalfa is certain to contaminate normal fields -- but not to meet farmers needs.

When I moved from D.C. back to central Pennsylvania, I had to relearn the questions for family reunions. In deer season: "Did you get your buck?" In the spring: "Got your corn planted yet?" And all summer long, especially after a rain: "Did you get your hay in?"

Recently, though, I ventured a new question to my Uncle Sheldon, a dairy farmer with some of the most productive fields in the valley. The USDA had just deregulated "Roundup Ready" alfalfa, and I wondered: Would he plant the controversial crop? "I won't use it," he said. "I don't see the need for it."

Here in Pennsylvania, alfalfa is one of few perennial crops that farmers grow in the tried-and-true rotation of corn, soybeans, grain, and hay. It fixes nitrogen, prevents soil erosion, and -- as long as you cut, dry, and bale it before the rain -- makes nutrient-dense hay to nourish your cows all winter long. Another benefit: Alfalfa naturally chokes out weeds. Currently, only 7 percent of the country's 22 million alfalfa acres ever sees herbicide at all.

Enter Roundup Ready alfalfa, genetically engineered by Monsanto to survive weed-killing doses of the herbicide glyphosate. Even farmers smitten with alfalfa’s Roundup Ready cousins -- soybeans, corn, canola, sugar beets, and cotton -- aren't necessarily embracing the new addition. My uncle, for instance, doesn't want to kill the grass he sows with his alfalfa. The diversity, he explains, keeps the soil from washing away when the alfalfa thins out; plus, it's better for the cows.

The environmental, consumer, and sustainable agriculture groups that opposed the USDA's decision hoped for a ban on Roundup Ready alfalfa, or at least restrictions to prevent contamination of non-genetically modified seed. Lacking either, farmers who grow alfalfa for seed have little hope of maintaining pure strains. Seeds comingle in storage and transport, and -- though alfalfa for hay is usually cut before it blooms -- cross-pollination is inevitable, since bees don't pause to check whether flowers are genetically modified or not.

Another concern: Since deregulation, Roundup Ready technology is now available throughout the traditional rotation. (Wheat is next, Monsanto promises.) But genetically modified corn and bean fields everywhere are already sprouting glyphosate-resistant superweeds, and additional alfalfa acreage will only make them stronger. Here's where farmers pull out the dangerous stuff in the back of the shed. Atrazine, anyone?

Still, my biggest grievance against Roundup Ready alfalfa is not the certainty of seed contamination, nor the poisoning of soil and water, nor even the fact that farmers were just fine without it. It's a question for Monsanto, actually: What else could have been done with all their time, money, and intelligence?

Given the global population explosion, writes Henry I. Miller in Forbes, "We need seeds and crops that can better withstand drought, combat new pests and weeds, and perhaps adjust to changes in climate and growing seasons." Ironically, Miller is a staunch proponent of genetically modified crops. Perplexingly, Roundup Ready alfalfa addresses exactly none of his concerns.

"So who's promoting this stuff?" I finally asked my uncle. Turns out, it's Land O'Lakes, the dairy giant that buys my uncle's milk. Land O'Lakes owns Forage Genetics, the seed distributor that cooperated with Monsanto to bring us Roundup Ready alfalfa. Their president, Mark McCaslin, apparently has high hopes that Uncle Sheldon will eventually change his mind: "We think within three to five years, there's a potential for half of the alfalfa crop in the U.S. to be Roundup Ready," he told the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune in January.

I hope that McCaslin is underestimating the capacity of farmers for common sense. I fear that, if he's right, it won't be because they planted his alfalfa on purpose.

Bethany Spicher Schonberg, a former Sojourners intern, is an organic vegetable farmer in Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania.

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