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A Cook's Garden

Genetically engineered alfalfa isn't necessary

Alfalfa, a crucial link in our food chain, is being bioengineered for weedkiller tolerance.
Alfalfa, a crucial link in our food chain, is being bioengineered for weedkiller tolerance. (Istock Photo)

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By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 16, 2011; 1:32 PM

Alfalfa's roots go deep in the soil and deep in history. Prized by the ancient Persians, this high-protein "Queen of Forages" is still treasured. It is the fourth-largest crop grown in the United States, primarily for feeding cattle. And it is the latest one to fall to the Empire of Monsanto.

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Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack's recent decision to deregulate the use of Monsanto's Roundup Ready Alfalfa (RRA) has alarmed many in the farming community, and beyond, who expected better from this administration. I suppose the kindest thing you could say about this genetically engineered seed - developed to allow the plant to withstand applications of Roundup herbicide - is that it's unnecessary.

Alfalfa competes well with weeds in a well-managed system. But when RRA is grown, weeds will develop resistance to Roundup, as they have with the other crops that carry the Roundup Ready gene, such as corn, soybeans and cottons (sugar beets are next). This resistance could lead to the introduction of yet more powerful transgenic remedies that, in turn, would fail.

Polling has shown that most Americans dislike the idea of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) being introduced into the food supply, which is why the agricultural lobby blocks the labeling of products containing them. And no one fears the galloping GMO trend more than farmers - organic or otherwise - who bank on selling GMO-free alfalfa hay, or meat from animals not tainted by eating RRA.

Many farmers now grow or source seed abroad to avoid cross-pollination from Monsanto crops. In seed production, alfalfa is pollinated by far-ranging bees, which makes it especially vulnerable to such biological trespass.

It is possible that, in time, forces will prevail that are not motivated by profit, and will rethink the whole GMO approach to food. It may become clear that none of it works very well, that it presents more problems than it purports to solve, and that agricultural science might be put to better use.

But here's the main point about GMOs: You can't recall them the way you can a car or a plastic toy. They're out there for good. And no one knows what their full impact will be.

I recently came across a little book called "DDT - Killer of Killers," written in 1946 by two chemical engineering professors named O.T. Zimmerman and Irvin Lavine. It's easy to poke fun at the pictures of housewives spraying DDT all over their kitchens, and at the authors' giddy assurances of that poison's worth, lacking any knowledge of its unintended consequences.

We'd like to think we've learned how to correct such mistakes, and we have. Faced with pollution, we've cleaned up much of America's air and water. But a new kind of pollution is being forced on us with no widespread agreement on its efficacy or consensus on its safety. Twenty years ago it wasn't there; now it affects the majority of food produced in this country, without our consent. We've said "No," but is anybody listening?

Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of "The Garden Primer."

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