Posted by: Mahdi Ebrahimi | September 18, 2007

Organic farmers fear spread of genetically altered alfalfa

Wisconsin is a long way from the Pacific Northwest, but Coon Valley farmer Jim Munsch worries that genetically engineered alfalfa grown there could contaminate his farm and harm his organic beef business.

Alfalfa is used for livestock feed. Almost all of the seed comes from a concentration of growers in states such as Montana and Washington. Munsch worries that genetically engineered alfalfa, called Roundup Ready, threatens to contaminate alfalfa seed farms in the Northwest and ruin traditional strains of the ubiquitous crop nationwide.

Other Wisconsin farmers worry that cross-pollination could occur in their own backyard if genetically engineered alfalfa spreads from field to field.

Either event could be very harmful for the fast-growing organic food industry nationwide.

It could scare away customers who pay premiums for food that’s raised naturally without the use of biotechnology.

“If I were forced to feed a genetically modified crop to my animals, it would violate the trust I have with my customers,” Munsch said. “They have formed opinions about what they will and won’t eat. And one of those opinions is that anything genetically modified is not appropriate” in the food chain.

Roundup Ready alfalfa, from Monsanto Co., is genetically engineered to resist herbicides. It means that farmers can use Roundup Ready herbicide in their alfalfa fields to kill weeds but not harm the crop.

“From a conventional grower’s perspective, there’s really no down side to it,” said Dan Undersander, a University of Wisconsin Extension agronomist.

But earlier this year, a U.S. District Court judge in San Francisco barred the planting of genetically altered alfalfa nationwide until the government can adequately study the crop’s potential impact on organic and conventional varieties.

Judge Charles Breyer sided with organic farmers who feared lost sales if their crops were accidentally contaminated by genetically engineered plants through pollination by bees and the wind.

“The harm to these farmers and consumers who do not want to purchase genetically engineered alfalfa, or animals fed with such alfalfa, outweighs the economic harm to Monsanto,” Breyer wrote.



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