Why was GM alfalfa grass ever developed?

January 2012

Round bales of alfalfa in a Montana field, USA.
Picture from Wikimedia Commons
In 2005, the US government approved the growing of a 'Roundup Ready' (herbicide-tolerant) GM fodder grass, 'RR alfalfa'. Since people don't eat grass, this might seem one of the less controversial GM crops to go on sale. Or, is it?

One US farmer, Philip Geertson, who has spent 30 years raising a diversity of crops and 25 years as a partner in alfalfa breeding programmes is having trouble understanding why anyone would want herbicide-tolerant alfalfa. He said:
“When Roundup Ready alfalfa was first suggested I did not think that it would be developed and introduced because most alfalfa fields are never sprayed for weed control. And, if a chemical weed control was needed, there is a long list of off-patent low-cost herbicides that are effective if used properly.”

There are several reasons why alfalfa doesn't need to be sprayed with herbicides:
  • the entire above-ground crop is harvested every 24 to 30 days, along with any weeds; this suppresses weed growth and will control, and sometimes even eliminate, persistent perennials and noxious weeds that Roundup will not control
  • when alfalfa is grown according to good agronomic practice (i.e. in well-drained soil of the appropriate pH, properly fertilised etc.), alfalfa will outgrow and choke out most weeds
  • weeds in alfalfa grass are the symptom of a problem with the soil: the answer is to correct the underlying problem, not spray the symptoms with Roundup
  • alfalfa is often planted with a companion perennial grass to produce a mix which provides a ready-made superior forage for all classes of livestock; any companion plant would be killed when the RR alfalfa was sprayed with Roundup
Alfalfa grass is a native plant of Eurasia and grows wild throughout Europe. It was introduced to North and South America, Australia and New Zealand, where it now also grows as a feral plant.

The grass is a long-lived perennial and is cross-pollinated by bees and other insects that fly long distances. This, plus its wide-spread distribution throughout the world make it extremely vulnerable to gene contamination. Indeed, foundation seed was already contaminated with RR genes in 2005, the same year as GM alfalfa was approved.

In countries, such as America, where monocultures of Roundup Ready soya, maize, sugar-beet and cotton are common, gene-polluted feral alfalfa will become a major pest.

Geertson's opinion is that putting an artificial gene into an important crop without thoroughly analysing the potential negative effects, is criminal.

GM alfalfa has hit the seed export market. Historically, the US alfalfa seed industry was the biggest in the world, with more than half of the seed it produced being exported. But no one outside of the USA seems to want the GM version, or seed from a source which might be contaminated with RR genes. Suspiciously, the US Department of Agriculture has not released any figures for alfalfa seed export since 2007.

Geertson has his own personal axe to grind on the GM alfalfa issue. He spent 20 years developing the alfalfa business in New Zealand, first by helping farmers there achieve good agronomic practice to grow the grass, and then by building up a network of dealers to sell US-produced alfalfa seed varieties. In 2005 the bottom dropped out of his business: New Zealand moved quickly to ban the newly US-approved GM grass, and the seed stocks Geertson had contracted to ship overseas were discovered to be contaminated with traces of the RR gene.


So, GM alfalfa is a waste of space unless you are a bad farmer, want to spray your crop every year instead of occasionally when a problem actually emerges, never grow anything else, aren't interested in producing premium feed, can't be bothered harvesting the grass as often as you should, and aren't dependent on the export market. If that's the way farmers have become in the US, the biotech industry has a lot to answer for.


Philip Geertson, Roundup Ready Alfalfa Damages US Seed Industry, Truthout, 19.10.11

1 comment:

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