Biotechnology opponents have a certain fondness for referring to genetically modified crops as “Frankenfoods.” But it’s hard to see alfalfa in the role of monster — even genetically engineered alfalfa.
As Jerry Tlucek showed off his field of Roundup Ready alfalfa hay, he pulled one plant, now two years old and 17 inches tall, out of the ground. For the rest of the morning, it lay demurely between the two of us on the bench seat in Tlucek’s truck, next to a knotted plastic bag of sweet corn seed that another farmer had given him. At no point did the alfalfa plant leap for my jugular, or for Tlucek’s. In fact, as the morning wore on, the plant began to wilt.
Still, the dying plant suggested an unsettling contradiction. Monsanto has zealously guarded the sanctity of its intellectual property. Yet the company’s prized gene, from the bacterium fished out of the Roundup waste piles in Louisiana, now seems well on its way to pervading our entire food system.
And it may be doing even more than that. In his February ruling, Judge Breyer wrote that, “If the government’s action could eliminate all alfalfa, there would be no dispute that such action has a significant environmental impact, even though the primary impact is the economic effect on alfalfa and livestock farmers. For those farmers who choose to grow non-genetically engineered alfalfa, the possibility that their crops will be infected with the engineered gene is tantamount to the elimination of all alfalfa; they cannot grow their chosen crop.”
In fact, transgenic “creep” is already eliminating traditional crop varieties — and with them, choice. In 2001, for instance, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley discovered genetic contamination from another of Monsanto’s genetically engineered corn lines in native varieties of corn in Oaxaca, Mexico — the plant’s birthplace and the worldwide center of corn genetic diversity. Phil Geertson believes a similar genetic creep is already under way in alfalfa. “The seeds of it are out there. The seeds are planted,” he says. “I think what they’re going to have to do is set some standard of how much contamination there can be in alfalfa seed. Because it’ll be impossible to get it out of the system.”
It is not hard to imagine the distinctions between conventional and organic, between conventional and genetically engineered — and ultimately between genetically engineered and organic — dissolving, regardless of whether anyone wants such an outcome.
George Siemon is the head of the Wisconsin-based CROPP Cooperative, which includes about 670 dairy farms around the country whose milk is sold under the Organic Valley label. Siemon says that the cooperative’s members, who produce, he estimates, about 35 percent of the nation’s organic milk supply, have already been forced to deal with the omnipresence of genetically modified crops.
“We have feed that’s being raised that gets polluted by (genetically modified) corn in the Midwest,” he says. “The least we could ask for is seed that’s not polluted, but it’s getting harder and harder to find any seed that doesn’t have a trace amount of pollution.”
In fact, Siemon says, the “USDA Organic” seal that graces Organic Valley’s milk cartons represents the spirit rather than the absolute purity of organic farming. The national organic standards went into effect in 2001, and the very way they were written implicitly acknowledged that the line between organic and genetically modified food had already been blurred: The test of “organicness” is a farmer’s adherence to an organic production process, rather than a crop’s absolute freedom from genetic contamination. “The organic seal represents that we’re doing the very most we can do to avoid (contamination),” says Siemon. “ ‘Coexistence’ is a nice term, but it turns out that coexistence (means) we put up with their contamination.”
In Idaho, Monsanto’s efforts to re-engineer the world to conform to its business plan are changing longstanding relationships between farmers. Early in the afternoon on the same stormy day that Paul Rasgorshek would make the rounds of his Roundup Ready alfalfa fields, Vince Holtz had patiently walked me through his seed-cleaning plant. The day had taken on a vaguely vaudevillian quality — partly because Holtz’s wife, Sue, kept calling him to find out where she should meet him with his lunch, so his cell phone repeatedly erupted with the melody of the 1972 hit song “Ventura Highway.”
But at one point, we stood behind the cleaning plant and looked out over one of Holtz’s fields, planted with conventional alfalfa. Rasgorshek’s farm, and one run by Leland Tiegs, another farmer who grows Roundup Ready alfalfa seed under contract for Forage Genetics, lay just a couple miles to the south over a low ridge.
Both Rasgorshek and Tiegs had made a point of saying how much they respected Holtz’s chops as a farmer, and Holtz made it clear that the feeling was mutual. But looking toward their fields felt like peering across the border between two warring states — albeit one that was proving a lot more porous than anyone had imagined.
Holtz had been explaining the finer points of how to test for transgenic contamination in alfalfa seed when he seemed to come face-to-face with his own powerlessness. “I might have a little field of my own seed, and I’ve got some small markets developed. But I’m not gonna go out there and take over the world. It keeps me living.” Then, with what seemed like sadness more than anger, he said, “But the next thing you know, Paul and Leland have got all these acres (planted in Roundup Ready alfalfa), and you can’t shift gears.”
Not all that far away, the next Roundup Ready crop has emerged from Monsanto’s product-development pipeline. This year, farmers near Worland, Wyo., are growing some 2,000 acres of Roundup Ready sugar beets. And in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, fields of Roundup Ready sugar beet seed will be ready for harvest this summer. The crop’s full release is scheduled for next year.
Matt Jenkins is a contributing editor of High Country News.