Real-life GM alfalfa contamination

April 2016

The GM alfalfa grass saga continues ... [1]

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has long maintained that GM crops can co-exist with conventional and organic agriculture.  To keep GMOs in the field where they've been planted, all that's needed is for neighbouring farmers to sort things out between themselves, follow "best management practice", and sue each other if things go wrong. 

But, GM alfalfa, is blowing that narrative apart.

A USDA study published at the end of 2015 starts "The potential environment risks of transgene exposure are not clear for alfalfa ...", and goes on to describe how a tiny amount of GM alfalfa cultivation (5% in 2006 and declining in the following five years) has already led to some well-established stands of GM alfalfa outside the fields.  The 'feral' grass is 'Roundup Ready' i.e. it's tolerant to glyphosate-based herbicides.

Alfalfa is a perennial grass, usually grown for two to five years to produce hay, or two years for seed.  Some areas have planted it on road-sides to control erosion.

The grass isn't native to America and interactions with local flora and fauna aren't known.

Despite the concerns which temporarily halted GM alfalfa planting in 2006, plus the production of a "voluminous" 2010 Environmental Impact Statement, and the restarting of planting in 2011, "no studies have quantified the dispersal of the alfalfa GR (glyphosate-resistant) transgene outside of cultivated fields."  That is, until now.

Scientists scouted 6,000 kilometers of rural road verges in alfalfa-growing areas during 2011.  In all, 404 sites of feral alfalfa were located, 27% of which had GM plants.

From the locations and plant characteristics, it was established that the GM alfalfa colonies were self-sustaining, having been there for some years but with additional current-year pollen transfer.  It's likely they were derived from spilled seed during production of hay and seed, and during transportation.  Neighbouring feral plants were well within pollinator foraging range which for bees can be several kilometers.  This suggests GM feral alfalfa could act as a conduit to facilitate transgene flow.

It's also possible that GM alfalfa has been promoted in areas which use glyphosate as an herbicide on roads, where the resistant plants would be the only weeds to survive.

Alfalfa is the world's most important forage crop in terms of economic value and US acreage grown.  Industry and regulators have short-sightedly focused on supporting the co-existence of GM and non-GM alfalfa, not on controlling transgene flow.  Already, alfalfa exporters have suffered many millions of dollars in losses due to rejection of their shipments because of transgenic contamination, and US hay prices have fallen as a result.


Is GM alfalfa "already joining the roadside GM canola which is always going to be there?" [3].

How much of the GM contamination comes from cross-pollination from feral or cultivated GM alfalfa, or from inadvertent mixing during harvest or storage, or from contamination of seed supplies isn't known.

What's certain, however, is that now that GM alfalfa has been re-approved, the situation will get out of control.  And it will be in your food-chain.

Worryingly, there is scientific evidence indicating a potential for consumer harm from glyphosate-tolerant GM plants, even if they haven't been treated with, or accumulated, any of the herbicide [2].

The Soil Association recently reported a review published in the British Journal of Nutrition showing that:
"organic milk and meat contain around 50% more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than non-organic.  In addition to organic milk and meat, the nutritional differences also apply to organic dairy like butter, cream, cheese and yoghurt."  
Choosing organic meat and dairy is the only way you can be sure to minimise your exposure to GM.

If you want your poultry, meat and dairy supplied from healthy, non-GM fed animals, a good way to start is to demand such products are at least labelled.  Check out 

[2]  GM MAIZE IS NOTSAFE TO EAT - October 2012

  • Stephanie L. Greene, et al., 2015, Occurrence of transgenic Feral alfalfa (Medicago sativa subsp. sativeL.) in Alfalfa Seed Production Areas in the United States, PLOS, 23.12.15
  • Bill Freese,  New study finds genetically engineered alfalfa has gone wild, exposing failure of "coexistence" policy, Center for Food Safety, 13.01.16
  • Ground-breaking new study finds clear nutritional differences between organic and non-organic milk and meat,, 16.02.16
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