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Genetically Modified Alfalfa Raises Concern Among Farmers

By Gregory B. Hladky, Hartford Advocate (2/8/11)

  FEBRUARY 17, 2011 --


Not exactly a topic you’d expect to ignite passionate debate here in our densely populated, heavily urbanized, supermarket-oriented land of Connecticut. That is, unless you add the words “genetically modified” and start talking to local organic farmers and natural food geeks.

Many of these folks are seriously pissed off about a new ruling by U.S. Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack allowing farmers to plant genetically modified alfalfa whenever they want and without telling any of their customers that the crop’s genes have been diddled.

The problem, critics warn, is that once a crop like genetically modified alfalfa is planted, you can get a ripple effect. Wind and bees can spread the pollen to neighboring natural crops, creating new strains of genetically altered plants even for organic farmers totally opposed to the concept. Theoretically, pollen from GM alfalfa can be spread to wild relatives growing as weeds, so the strain “drifts” even farther.

You can also have that GM alfalfa, which is a type of hay commonly used as feed for cattle and other grazing animals, getting into meat and dairy products that are allegedly completely organic.

“It’s a bad decision,” insists Bill Duesing, executive director of the Connecticut chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association. Speaking last week at a state “Farm-to-Chef” conference in Old Saybrook, Duesing warned the federal alfalfa decision “increases that contamination risk” for organic farmers everywhere.

John Turenne, a former executive chef for Yale University who is now president of a consulting company called Sustainable Food Systems, says everybody should be worried about this decision.

“We’re messing with nature, the way things evolved for eons,” he says. “It’s not knowing the long-term effects; we don’t know the ramifications.”

The New England Farmers Union issued an angry response to the USDA’s decision, saying it came “despite mounting evidence of the potential detrimental effect of this product on organic and conventional crops of alfalfa and other crops, on the environment, and on the economy of the agricultural industry as a whole.”

One reason Duesing is concerned is that he believes organic farming is the future of agriculture in Connecticut, and anything that jeopardizes that spells trouble for everybody concerned about where their food comes from and what’s really in it.

Now, Connecticut isn’t exactly the alfalfa-growing center of the universe, but we do have farms raising it here. According to the 2007 “Census of Agriculture” by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, there were 18,441 tons of alfalfa grown as hay in Connecticut that year. Midwestern states grow millions of tons of the stuff every year as hay and silage. It’s the fourth largest U.S. field crop, worth an estimated $8-10 billion annually.

U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists and the multi-billion-dollar seed and herbicide industry insist genetically modified crops are safe and help farmers produce more food less expensively.

“After conducting a thorough and transparent examination of alfalfa … the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has determined that Roundup Ready alfalfa is as safe as traditionally bred alfalfa,” Vilsack said in announcing his decision.

For the uninitiated, “Roundup Ready” refers to the genetically modified seeds produced by the agri-industrial giant Monsanto. If you buy Roundup Ready crop seeds, you can then use Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide to kill weeds without worrying the poison will also kill your crop. Fewer weeds means more crop at less cost to the farmer. (And more money for Monsanto.)

Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court (surprise, surprise) sided with Monsanto in the first-ever ruling by the high court on genetically modified crops. David Snively, Monsanto’s senior vice president and general counsel, called the decision “important for every American farmer, not just alfalfa growers.”

“All growers can rely on the expertise of USDA and trust that future challenges to biotech approvals must now be based on scientific facts, not speculation,” said Snively. (Duesing says one of his biggest concerns is the constant revolving door going on between companies like Monsanto and the USDA, which means it’s hard to tell who is regulating whom.)

Neil McHale, head of the bio-chemical and genetics department of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, says he doesn’t know for sure how many genetically modified crops are being grown in Connecticut right now but doubts there are very many at all.

McHale doesn’t sound completely convinced by the safety claims being made by Monsanto and the USDA in favor of genetically modified crops.

“Most people would say there is relatively little risk,” McHale says. “But no one can say there is absolutely no danger.”


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