Alfalfa, sometimes called lucerne, is the fourth-most prevalent crop in the United States. At least 18 million acres of alfalfa are grown in the US each year—this nutrient-dense legume makes up a sizeable portion of our farmland. Meant almost exclusively for animal feed, alfalfa is typically cut, dried, and bailed. It can also be stored wet as silage, which sometimes involves special microbial starters. You can learn all about wet vs dry feed matter in the Non-GMO Project Standard.
Alfalfa is grown in Canada as well, but on a much smaller scale. Genetically modified HT alfalfa is widely commercially available in the United States and Canada, so alfalfa is considered a high-risk crop under the Non-GMO Project Standard. It is also a perfect case study for GMO contamination and an excellent illustration of why building a non-GMO food supply matters.
Roughly 13 percent of alfalfa was genetically modified in 2013 (the most recent year USDA ERS data is available). Alfalfa is unique among GMOs in that it does not require annual planting. Most farmers seed their perennial alfalfa about once every seven years; this is part of the reason that farmers adopted GMO alfalfa a little more slowly than other common GMOs. Overall, GMO alfalfa adoption is speeding up over time.
Most people don’t think of alfalfa as a food source. Sprouted alfalfa aside, it is not very tasty and we typically see it in the form of pet food or hay. However, if you choose to eat meat, eggs, or dairy products, you are indirectly consuming a good deal of alfalfa! Nearly all alfalfa is used for animal feed—especially for dairy cows.
When evaluating products that come from animals, the Non-GMO Project Standard demands testing, traceability, and segregation all the way back to animal feed. This means that if a cow eats GMO alfalfa as part of her ration, her milk can’t be Non-GMO Project Verified. A very large portion of all GMOs are grown for animal feed, which means animal feed presents an important opportunity to effect change in our shared food system. When you choose Non-GMO Project Verified animal products, you are helping to say “no” to GMO alfalfa and the problems that go with it.
Roundup Ready Alfalfa Means More Glyphosate
Nearly all GMO alfalfa is grown for herbicide-tolerance. HT crops such as Roundup Ready alfalfa allow farmers to apply chemical pesticides such as glyphosate or 2-4D directly to the crop instead of just spraying individual weeds. Over time, these crops have led to a dramatic increase in glyphosate use.
The newest deregulated form of GMO alfalfa is engineered to help cows digest it more easily by reducing the lignin content. Lignin is a cellular polymer that animals have a hard time digesting, but it is also important for carbon sequestration.
A Complicated Regulatory History
The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) initially deregulated Roundup Ready alfalfa in 2005; this allowed farmers to grow it without regulatory restrictions. This changed in 2007, however, after the Center for Food Safety, Sierra Club, and other nonprofits sued APHIS over that decision. The lawsuit alleged that APHIS had acted unlawfully by deregulating the crop without an environmental impact statement. A District Court initially agreed with the Center for Food Safety and ordered a temporary injunction, prohibiting the sale of GMO alfalfa seeds.
The Supreme Court lifted the planting ban in 2010; alfalfa became fully deregulated once again in 2011. The Center for Food Safety responded with an outstanding public rebuttal—we encourage you to read it in full.
This legal battle played out as a jurisdictional issue, but it also centered on GMO contamination and farmer rights. Alfalfa is hearty, easily pollinated, and prolific. The more GMO alfalfa there is in a given area, the greater the contamination pressure becomes. If one farmer is growing non-GMO alfalfa and her neighbor is growing GMO alfalfa, cross-pollination will eventually result in GMO pollen reaching her non-GMO crops. Subsequent generations of those crops could no longer be sold as non-GMO or as Organic, leading to a loss of profit and a loss of our non-GMO inheritance.
Example: Washington State in 2013
Organic and non-GMO farmers deserve to have their crops—and the livelihoods that go along with those crops—protected from contamination. This isn’t just an environmental issue, it is a matter of equity and justice for real farmers throughout North America. GMOs inherently infringe on a farmer’s right to grow non-GMO crops.
Feral Alfalfa Goes GMO
Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, it didn’t take long for the deregulated alfalfa to contaminate wild alfalfa populations either. The USDA ordered a study on this type of contamination. Scientists tested wild alfalfa from more than 400 populations and found that 27 percent were contaminated. This research was conducted back in 2011 and 2012, so it is reasonable to expect this problem to have worsened over the past several years of completely unchecked contamination.
The Non-GMO Project is committed to preserving and building sources of non-GMO products. The story of GMO alfalfa helps illustrate why our mission is so important—and so difficult. Not only has GMO alfalfa contaminated farmed alfalfa, but it’s also irreparably changing wild populations. It’s important to make sure that current and future generations have access to non-GMO choices that include non-GMO alfalfa.
If we have any chance of saving conventional alfalfa, it begins with non-GMO animal feed. If you choose to eat meat, eggs, or dairy, choosing non-GMO is one of the most meaningful ways you can help protect our remaining wild alfalfa.