Most of us don’t think about alfalfa very much. Outside of agricultural communities and die hard fans of Our Gang, it is safe to say alfalfa is not a hot topic. We’d like to challenge that notion. Bear with us:
In the US, alfalfa is grown on roughly 23 million acres annually, most of which is harvested for animal feed. Alfalfa is a unique crop: it forms remarkably dense, tall plants that naturally crowd out weeds. Historically, 93 percent of pre-GMO alfalfa was grown without herbicides. So it’s a bit of a head-scratcher as to why GMO alfalfa, developed specifically for tolerance to the herbicide glyphosate (the key ingredient in Roundup) was developed at all. If weeds weren’t a big problem in the first place, why bring unnecessary chemical inputs into alfalfa fields? The answer: corporate profit. At the time of GMO alfalfa’s creation, conventional alfalfa was the fourth biggest commodity crop in the US. Monsanto had already developed Roundup Ready (RR) versions of the other top crops: corn, soy and cotton. Four-of-a-kind would’ve been very attractive.
After its initial market introduction, GMO alfalfa was sporadically planted while environmental groups battled in court with government agencies. Deregulation was followed by planting, followed by a moratorium on planting, then environmental assessments, and round and round for the next 6 years. In 2005, then-Inspector General of the USDA stated that ”current [USDA] regulations, policies and procedures do not go far enough to ensure the safe introduction of agricultural biotechnology.” While this may have seemed like a win for the growing non-GMO movement, the genie was already out of the bottle. Alfalfa is a perennial crop, sown once every 5-7 years, and pollinated by bees. After RR GMO seed was introduced, the spread of GMO plants to organic and conventional non-GMO farms was inevitable. Such contamination events pose serious threats to alfalfa farmers, who may lose non-GMO and organic status or be excluded from global markets. In 2011, the legal wrangling over GMO alfalfa ultimately landed on the side of Monsanto lobbyists, and in a tragic case of “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” the adoption of herbicide-tolerant GMO alfalfa spiked. The modus operandi for biotechnology corporations goes something like this:
- Create a genetically modified organism.
- Create the chemical inputs that go with it.
- Get farmers hooked on a treadmill of increasing inputs and degraded soil health.
This is a simple but chilling to-do list.
The relationship of bees to alfalfa is symbiotic: alfalfa producers rely on bees to pollinate their crops, and bees rely on alfalfa flowers for food. There is no shortage of fascinating factoids about bees, but for now we’ll focus on their sense of sight. The eyesight of a bee is very different from that of a human: where we might see a field blanketed with color, a bee sees a detailed landscape of individual food sources bathed in UV light. That ability to see UV light, in particular, highlights plants with blue, violet and purple flowers of high nectar content, including alfalfa. The adoption of RR alfalfa throws a beautiful relationship badly out of whack, as is apparent in the alfalfa industry’s profitable side hustle: honey. While glyphosate is an herbicide — designed to kill plants rather than animals — recent studies indicate it alters the gut flora of honey bees, potentially weakening them so they are more susceptible to other threats like viruses, mites and predators. GMO alfalfa isn’t just an agricultural boondoggle, it’s also a dangerous bait-and-switch for pollinators.
To get us all caught up, here’s a basic plot summary of alfalfa drama, 2005-2013:
- Non-GMO alfalfa was working pretty well to begin with. In engineering herbicide tolerant GMO alfalfa, Monsanto was not addressing a need, but creating a market to sell more herbicides.
- Alfalfa and bees rely upon each other for reproduction (bees pollinate the crops, alfalfa flowers provide a food source).
- Once introduced into the wild, contamination pressures forced more and more farmers to adopt GMO alfalfa.
- A mere 8 years later, 3 million acres of previously pristine alfalfa fields that provided animal feed and bee forage without the use of GMOs or the herbicides that accompany them are now doused in glyphosate.
- Wild bees and domesticated honey bees continue to visit their favorite purple flowers. As RR GMO alfalfa use spreads, so do glyphosate applications that can make bees sick.
During the same time period, bee populations faced steep decline. A phenomenon known as “colony collapse disorder” appeared in North America in 2006, in which a seemingly healthy honey bee colony suddenly loses its worker bee population. Without worker bees collecting nectar, the remaining queen and nurse bees cannot survive. Stranger still, colony collapse disorder has receded in recent years, but bee populations are still in decline. Unable to trace the cause of bees’ suffering to a single source, researchers now suspect a combination of factors may be at play. Surely eliminating threats that we know about, such as glyphosate use on bee-pollinated plants, is a step in the right direction.
Meanwhile, a new strain of GMO alfalfa, engineered both for herbicide tolerance and better digestibility for cows, became commercially available in 2017. At the Non-GMO Project, we’re deeply skeptical of regulatory processes that failed to adequately assess the environmental and commercial impacts of GMO alfalfa the first time around, causing damage to wildlife, ecological biodiversity and the farmers who rely on them. The future of agriculture, and of the planet itself, depends on widening the lens through which we view our world. The challenges we are facing as a species are complex and interconnected. It will take all of us to meet them.