Why You Should Care About Genetically-Modified Alfalfa

In late January, commercial growers of genetically modified alfalfa sprouts got the green light. This controversial decision has the food industry fighting and with good reason. Find out what’s been going on and tell us where you stand on the issue.
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broccoli sprouts growing

Photo by: Marek Uliasz

Marek Uliasz

Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack recently gave commercial alfalfa growers the green light to plant seeds genetically modified to resist the herbicide Roundup. This controversial decision has the food industry fighting, and with good reason. So, why should you care? Find out what’s been going on, and how it could affect organic produce and meats. Then, tell us where you stand on this issue.

Why Alfalfa?

Alfalfa is the fourth largest crop in the United States, behind corn, soybeans and wheat and is valued at around $8 billion. It’s grown on around 20 million acres in every state in this country and is mostly used to make hay fed to dairy producing cows and horses.

The Pros

Seed giant Monsanto developed an alfalfa seed that’s resistant to the weedkiller Roundup, which means alfalfa farmers can use the chemical on the plant, which saves time, labor and money on weeding. The genetically-modified alfalfa seed also allows farmers to grow more plants per acre, which helps keep food prices low.

The Cons

Why the controversy? Organic farmers and consumers argue that the genetically modified plant will cross-pollinate with the non-genetically modified counterpart, effectively "contaminating" the organic crop. Although only about 1 percent of the country's total alfalfa crop is organic, the risk is high that there will be cross-pollination. If the organic alfalfa contains even a trace of genetically-modified material, it can’t be labeled as organic. If this happens, it can lead to:

  • Fewer organic alfalfa crops: Since there is a high possibility of cross-pollination, less organic farmers will be planting alfalfa, especially if they live near a field growing genetically modified seeds.
  • Fewer organic dairy farmers and higher prices: Organic dairy farmers use organic alfalfa to feed their cows, so with fewer organic alfalfa fields to graze, costs will go up. Increased costs will travel to you, the consumer, in the form of higher organic milk and dairy product prices.
  • Less organic meat: Cattle feed is made from organic alfalfa, but if it has the possibility of being contaminated, it might mean  fewer organic meat producers.

The only promise made by the USDA was to study ways to prevent the cross-pollination between genetically and non-genetically modified plants. Studies could take years to complete, which means cross-pollination would be well under way.

TELL US: What’s your take on genetically modified alfalfa?

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. See Toby's full bio »

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