Early in 2011, USDA Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that the agency approved unrestricted commercial planting of genetically engineered alfalfa despite concern from organic and non-GMO growers that it could cross-contaminate and threaten the purity of their crops. Now, new USDA research shows the genetically modified alfalfa has spread to the wild and to non-GMO growers, creating major risks for certified organic products that rely on 'clean' alfalfa.
The study goes against the long-maintained opinion of USDA officials that the GMO alfalfa, Monsanto’s Roundup Ready crop engineered to withstand heavy applications of the company’s herbicide, could safely “coexist” with non-GMO grown alfalfa. The U.S. grows approximately 40 percent of the world's alfalfa, which is used primarily as food for livestock animals.
USDA researchers looked at three major alfalfa-growing regions in the U.S.: California, Idaho, and Washington. They were seeking out wild alfalfa on roadsides. The plant, a robust perennial, is known for clustering into wild populations near where it’s planted, capable of sustaining the wild growth for years.
When the USDA researchers found wild alfalfa stands, more than 400 for the study, they found that an overwhelming number-- more than 25 percent--of the samples were genetically engineered.
“They believe that most of these feral populations likely grew from seeds spilled during alfalfa production or transport,” reports The Ecologist.
Some of the feral GE alfalfa was also likely spread by bees, who do cross-pollinate, sometimes miles from the original site. And this, the researchers noted, could spell contamination troubles for nearby non-GMO alfalfa growers—a concern raised by a number of non-GMO and organic companies in 2010 when they were asked to consult with the USDA before it fully deregulated the crop.
Organic Authority spoke with representative of Whole Foods Market in 2011 after the GMO alfalfa deregulation occurred. The chain was one of many companies concerned that the GE alfalfa would eventually cross-pollinate.
“While [the USDA] did not test this latter possibility, there is no doubt that non-GE alfalfa has in fact been transgenically contaminated - not just once, but on many occasions,” The Economist reports also that cross-contamination may go as far back as 2005, when the crop was first approved by the USDA. That approval was reversed by a federal court in 2007, with the exception of (GE) crops already planted.
The new findings mean that the wild transgenic alfalfa found in the study (conducted shortly after the re-approval in 2011) was likely a result of the 2005-06 plantings before the approval was reversed. Today, there is considerably more of the Roundup Ready alfalfa being grown, which means not only more cases of wild GMO alfalfa, but also more cross-contamination for organic and non-GMO farmers to contend with as well.
"Depending on which side of the fence people tend to lean, anti-GMOers are saying, 'See, we told ya so,' and proponents of GMO crops are saying a little transgenetic contamination is to be expected," reports Digital Journal. But 27 percent is considerably more than "a little" and likely to lead to considerable backlash against the USDA's decision.
"What’s needed now is not more studies to tell us in finer detail what we already know, but regulatory action," writes Bill Freese of the advocacy group, Center for Food Safety, "Yet the USDA—which is embarrassingly subservient to the biotechnology industry—has failed to voluntarily enact a single restriction on GE crop growers. This forces traditional farmers to bear the entire burden of preventing transgenic contamination."
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Alfalfa image via Shutterstock