GMO alfalfa in the Valley? 060511
Last January the Obama Whitehouse reversed itself and directed that genetically modified alfalfa can be planted almost without restriction. This despite the fact that most experts and even the administration’s own experts agree that GMO alfalfa is inevitably going to cross pollinate with other strains. It is believed that the Obama administration succumbed to pressure from Monsanto. Visit the Monsanto website here, but remember that the First Amendment prevents restrictions on words like “healthy”, and that Monsanto pays smart people to convince us. For balance, see The World According to Monsanto, here.
It is virtually certain that Monsanto’s GMO alfalfa will cross pollinate with natural varieties. As an indication of how serious the problem of genetic contamination is likely to be, the Department of Ag, in its announcement, promised to maintain a pure supply of unmodified alfalfa seed in Washington.
Genetic modification is, of course, implanting the instructions of life from one organism to another. Moving genetic information from one organism to another is not unknown in nature, and some kinds of bacteria and viruses trade material and make modifications to the material of hosts.
However, humankind has begun modifying genetic material in big ways. Corn and soybeans are already widely modified; alfalfa, the fourth most commercially grown plant with corn, soy and wheat, is now available. Alfalfa is grown on over 20 million acres in the U.S. and is very important to the Sierra Valley.
Because the genetic code duplicates itself every generation, when that tampered genetic material is exchanged, through pollen for example, the modification can be passed on to other plants. The constituents of genes in normal plants have arisen slowly, through interaction with the environment. In any ecology, the genes of all living forms evolve together. There are entire sections of DNA and RNA which function to control the integrity of the code and the way it is expressed through protein. GMO organisms do not benefit from this process, and are simply hashed together by technologists in the lab.
Polls have demonstrated that most consumers don’t want food that contains artificially modified genes. There have been lawsuits by the biochemical companies against producers who want to, for example, advertise that their milk does not contain recombinant bovine growth hormone (rGBH), a hormone that forces cows to produce more milk. Monsanto first developed rGBH.
Scientists from these agribusiness corporations have worked hard to convince legislators that genetically modified foods are as healthy as natural foods, but they have not been very successful. GMO food is banned in European Union countries, and must be labeled in others. There continue to be movements against it throughout Europe.
The reason such “frankenfoods” are prohibited in developed nations is simple. Once one farmer plants GMO plants it is almost inevitable that the genetic code will be transferred to other plants of that species, and indeed even government agronomists assume cross pollination with normal alfalfa is certain to happen. Since organic food, such as organic beef, can’t contain human manipulated genetic material, a farmer planting GMO alfalfa has greatly endangered farmers who want to raise natural food. Further, Monsanto has in the past sued farmers whose crops have become tainted with GMO genes because they are growing a crop they don’t own a license to. In short, you can’t grow seed with genetics they “own” even though you don’t want their pollution in your crop. This cross pollination has already happened with soy and corn. Once the modified genes enter the gene pool, only nature knows what the long term result will be.
This is why, in 2007, a federal court banned planting of GMO alfalfa, claiming the USDA hadn’t been able to demonstrate that the alfalfa was safe and wouldn’t contaminate normal varieties. Last year the Supreme Court said the lower court had over stepped itself and sent the matter back to the USDA.
Why would a farmer want to risk the genetics of neighboring normal crops by planting GMO alfalfa? Because weeds are the enemy of alfalfa, not only because they rob nutrients, water and sunlight, but because the presence of some noxious plants in the hay makes the alfalfa worth far less. Genetically modified alfalfa, typically, has been modified so that the herbicide “Roundup” can be used on the crop.
Roundup doesn’t harm the alfalfa, but kills the weeds, with the assumption of an increased crop, and a crop of more pure GMO alfalfa. What is most important for Monsanto is that using Roundup immune alfalfa presumes the use of plenty of Roundup.
Roundup is a dangerous toxin cleared by the USDA, and the feds don’t consider it to be carcinogenic. However, studies have demonstrated both the ability to disrupt the endocrine system and to be mutagenic, causing genetic defects. People going through puberty and pregnant women are assumed to be particularly susceptible to these effects.
Roundup is also a huge moneymaker for Monsanto, as it has been for over 30 years. Though the original patents have run out, Roundup still accounts for 10% of Monsanto’s income, according to some sources. Monsanto also gave us Agent Orange and over 50 sites abandoned or uncontrolled which are polluted with toxins; some of them are “superfund” sites.
Profit is the motive for Monsanto, and for farmers who use their product, and when profit is the prime motive short term goals tend to be the rule.
In truth, no one knows what the long term result of genetic modification will be. So far, the rationale has relied of the fact that most bad mutations will perish instead of thrive; indeed, it is sometimes difficult to get the modifications to “stick”. But, “long term” here means eons, thousands and hundreds of thousands of years, the span of time our naturally evolved genes have existed. Jiggering genes for profit is not the strategy of a society that understands “long term.” To underscore the point, America’s GMO policies were created by renowned mental midget Dan Quayle. USDA chief Tom Vilsack knows more about agribusiness than Quayle, and was initially hesitant to clear GMO alfalfa, but caved under pressure in January.
Dr. David Suzuki, a professor of genetics for nearly 40 years who also knows more than Dan Quayle, has been very clear that GMO foods and, indeed, genetic modification in general, is likely to have unforeseeable, and unfortunate consequences down the road. Regarding the safety of GMO food, he said anyone who says the food is known to be safe is “either unbelievably stupid, or deliberately lying.”
In siding with the megacorp Monsanto, Obama has turned his back on the growing agricultural industries of organic meat, milk and cheese in favor of a corporation with a big checkbook. It is unlikely Obama is an expert in genetic modification or even agriculture, but he’s a sound politician, and Monsanto is a heavy hitter in political circles. From outside, it looks like he caved on GMO alfalfa for political reasons.
Rumor has surfaced claiming that a valley farmer is planting GMO alfalfa in disregard of other alfalfa growers in the valley. The Prospect has chosen not to investigate the rumor; if it isn’t true now, it likely will be. Some producers who intend to produce organic beef are very upset, since beef that has eaten genetically modified alfalfa can’t be sold as organic, and milk produced on such alfalfa is likewise disqualified. These organic farmers will have a difficult time to sue for damages, and indeed they might themselves be sued for “patent infringement” for “benefiting” from the genetically trashed seed.
It isn’t clear how the Obama administration intends to protect the alfalfa in the Sierra Valley; it falls on Valley farmers and ranchers to police their own. A person is free to plant what they like on their land, but not if it results in the contamination of other crops.