But now some ‘Big Rascals’ have turned their attention to alfalfa: hired-gun lawyers. They’re collecting fees from anti-biotech activists in an attempt to halt the sale of an enhanced alfalfa that’s good for farmers and good for the environment. It is in the interests of precisely nobody that they succeed.
Roundup Ready alfalfa, which is resistant to a popular herbicide, went on the commercial market last year, after regulators at the Department of Agriculture approved it. Farmers planted a million pounds of the seed–the entire amount that was available, even though the GM seeds are more expensive. This year, some four millions pounds of seed are expected to be sold.
If the experience of alfalfa follows that of soybean, corn, and cotton- in just a few years much of the alfalfa grown in the United States may be genetically improved. That’s because GM crops provide so many advantages over traditional varieties: They make it easier to control weeds, they produce better yields, and they demand fewer applications of chemical sprays in order to thrive. What’s more, alfalfa provides great cover to a field, and thereby helps prevent soil erosion. For these reasons, farmers like the new alfalfa–and so do sensible environmentalists.
So, who are these insensible environmentalists paying attorneys to file lawsuits against biotech alfalfa? In February, a coalition that includes the Center for Food Safety and the Sierra Club began to litigate the matter in a San Francisco federal court. They want judges to reverse the USDA’s lengthy and studied decision that genetically improved alfalfa is a perfectly safe and legitimate crop.
The plaintiffs’ central claim is that GM alfalfa threatens organic varieties–and specifically that GM alfalfa will produce seeds that “contaminate” organic fields. But “contamination” is a weasel word and it betrays a profound misunderstanding of agriculture. Or a transparent attempt to market organics through misinformation. Whatever…its’ false.
A significant reason we have so many excellent crops today is because farmers have taken wild plants and domesticated them through careful breeding. Generations of farmers going back thousands of years have improved plants to make them more useful. That’s why there’s no such thing as a tomato in the wild: This staple food was developed from little red berries, and it cannot survive without the intervention of farmers or gardeners. Nobody complains about spaghetti dinners being “contaminated” by sauce made from unnatural tomatoes.
But there’s another reason why GM alfalfa won’t “contaminate” anything: Top farmers harvest alfalfa before it actually seeds. In fact, the best time to harvest alfalfa is when it’s just starting to bud or early bloom. That’s when protein is at its highest level, and when the plant is capable of becoming a top-quality feed source for cows.
So, this lawsuit against GM alfalfa can’t be about protecting the supposedly pristine fields of organic farmers. This is about halting technological developments that will benefit everyone. Irrational you say? The anti-biotech special interests have failed in their attempts to suppress genetically enhanced soybeans, corn, and cotton, so they’ve targeted a different crop. That’s how they keep their money coming in. This is self-serving clap-trap.
I’ve grown lots of alfalfa in the past and I may choose to do so again–especially if GM alfalfa turns out to be a much superior alternative to conventional varieties. Why should a bunch of lawyers who probably couldn’t identify an alfalfa field if they were standing in one be able to tell me any differently?
I can’t believe I actually have to write this, but I wish these guys would go back to chasing ambulances. Or at least to watching reruns of “The Little Rascals.”
Reg Clause raises cattle, corn and soybeans on a fourth generation family farm in central Iowa. He is a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrrade.org) a national grassroots advocacy group based in Des Moines, IA formed and led by farmers in support of freer trade and advancements in biotechnology.