Monday, March 18, 2013

Mad about Food

Seems like just lately, people are finally getting worked up about the GM salmon I wrote about a couple years ago (yeah, that's a little disappointed smugness).  Many people, who I don't think realize how many other GMO's they're eating on a regular basis have taken on the salmon battle.  We often tend to think in concrete, one dimensional ways about our food, so it's easy to tell ourselves that we don't eat soy, or sugar beets, so we're not part of the GMO experiment.  Sadly, as I've oft pointed out here, 70% of food in the grocery store contains genetically modified material.  But it's much sexier to battle it out against a giant salmon than a cotton ball (also GM), so it's getting a bit of attention right now.  I'd like to suggest however, that there is a far larger threat to our food system than that terrible fish, but it's probably the least exciting crop and feels the farthest from our plates, so may take some time (which we don't have) to get the attention it deserves.

Alfalfa.  Unless you eat sprouts on sandwiches, chances are, you're thinking "I don't eat alfalfa, that's rabbit food."  Well, unless you survive solely on a diet of organic vegetables grown in your own garden, you're bound to be part of the GM alfalfa experiment.
Alfalfa is that pretty blue flower you see in lush looking pastures about the same time that the pink clover is flowering.  It's a legume, so fixes it's own nitrogen and is a particularly nutritious forage for cattle.  It is a bit rich for sheep, but they love it and we recently incorporated it into our newest pasture.  It doesn't make great hay because the leaves are smaller and tend to fall off by the time it goes through a rake, tedder and baler, but it makes beautiful silage and haylage and is a key component to the diet of dairy cattle.  Alfalfa is extremely common across the country and (here is the important part) is a happy hunting ground for bees on the look out for pollen.  The flowers are close together and easy to access and you might actually see honey labelled as 'alfalfa honey' from time to time.  And when bees get involved, well, things can get messy.  So far, corn pollinates itself, via the breezes, and soy doesn't require pollination, so the bees have been, for the most part, able to stay out of the GM battle (although let's be clear, not unaffected as they're enduring the lasting affects of the associated pesticides).
So, the wee bees, unknowingly foraging away in what seems a benign, beautiful alfalfa field, buzz back and forth for as far and wide as they please (1-5 kms) and take GM alfalfa pollen to a not-GM alfalfa field and....oops whaddya we've got two GM alfalfa fields.  It is the same as us not being able to grow organic corn here in Freetown due to our proximity to many GM corn fields due to the cross pollination that could happen by the wind, except that bees travel much farther than corn pollen and they are much more exacting with their transfer, nearly guaranteeing a cross-contamination, rendering an entire field GM contaminated.  And since alfalfa is a forage (and not a cheap one), it can be left in rotation for multiple years, as it is a perennial crop and will continue to come back with good soil health management.  So now, we've got a field accidentally turned GMO and it will remain that way for a few years to come and bees will continue to frequent it and it then becomes a new source of GM pollen to pass along to the next field.

So what?  Think this still doesn't affect you?
 Here's just a few of the ways it could:

Conventional Meats: Chances are, unless it's organic, the grain it eats is GM anyway (soy and corn) so maybe the threat of alfalfa seems pretty minor, but do we really need to add another GM element directly to our food system?  Feedlot or pasture-raised, all ruminants (beef and lamb) receive a significant portion of their diet from a forage and in many cases, alfalfa will play a part in it. 
Grass-fed meats (beef, lamb, etc.)- aim to feed that concerned eater market who want to avoid grain-fed products for a variety of reasons (GM potential, more natural for ruminants to not eat grain, better for the environment, etc.) It would be difficult to maintain a very 'natural' air about grass fed beef, if the likelihood of GM alfalfa in the diet is a near guarantee and beyond control.

Organic dairy-  Dairy is probably the commodity that makes the most use of alfalfa and organic dairy is no different.  Since bees don't understand field limits, contamination is capable for many kilometers and again, beyond the control of the farmer.  So while the farmer may be following every organic 'rule' above and beyond requirements, the very pasture the cows are grazing on could be their undoing.  And if you question the importance of having an organic dairy industry, just ask Quebec.  That agriculture-rich province, at their annual general meeting of all types of producers, just passed a motion essentially banning GM alfalfa from the province.  This was born from a movement within their lucrative organic dairy community, but was supported by everyone.

Grains- we use legumes like clover as part of our rotation, because they grab nitrogen from the air and hold it in their roots so that when we plow them in, they serve as a source of fertility that we would otherwise be unable to access.  Remember how I said alfalfa is part of that legume family?  We often trade a cut of our green manure crop with a neighboring dairy farm in exchange for some actual manure.  Two problems: 1)we might someday choose to incorporate alfalfa into the mix with our clover for variety, and to make our dairy farmer neighbour extra happy (although given the price of it, likely not) and 2)his manure that we've traded for now has that much more GM contamination from the cattle eating a GM forage.

Vegetables- in order to keep soil healthy it must go through a rotation, involving different crops. Rotation prevents disease and pest populations, encourages diversity in the soil, prevents erosion problems and a huge host of other benefits.  Often a legume is a chosen rotation crop because of the afore-mentioned nitrogen fixing.  If it's organic, it's going to be that much harder for the organic farmer to maintain organic standards on land that is threatened by GM contamination.

So, let's say you've decided to not care about GMO's or worry about their threat to human health and our environment, why is this one any different? 
It doesn't offer any benefit. To anyone.  Even the GMO-loving, bio-tech-thirsty conventional, yield-over-all-else big-ag farmer will find marginal benefits from using this crop.  I have no idea how many farmers routinely spray their forages, but I have never in my life seen one do it, or heard of it as a common practice.  In organic and grass-fed circles, it is actually a benefit to have a diversity of plants in a forage mix.  Perhaps you have heard of Joel Salatin's "Salad Bar Beef" branding that he shares, suggesting that a variety of different plants on a pasture all bring different nutrients and benefits to the table so that the livestock have more choice and receive more benefits from what they're eating.  Spraying an alfalfa field would eliminate virtually EVERY other thing in the field, leaving a monocrop.  I guess the perceived benefit of this would be ease in calculating the nutrient density of a silage (and a TMR) and would alleviate weed pressure the following year, but forages are always plowed in anyway, so it seems like a waste of spray dollars.  Or at least hardly an investment of money and time that pays for itself in the end. 
The other crazy part of GMO's that we never talk about is the essential ingredient that makes them work and that's Round Up (glyphosate).  It's seen in most circles as the least harmful of all the pesticides but there are increasing studies and observations that consider its use over time that are showing some really serious problems with soil health.  And even more than bees, our human survival relies entirely on healthy soil. Effects of Round Up deserves it's own blog post, but I won't bore us with that now.

But Monsanto isn't stupid and they have proven time and again how to rope farmers into cycles of relying on them for seeds and chemicals and signing away their rights at the same time.  Given the history of court cases of farmers being sued by Monsanto for having GMO seeds in their crop, due to accidental contamination (and winning!) this poses a threat in the form of uncontrolled contamination and the potential for all kinds of unwitting farmers falling under corporations rules and punishments.

So,the next time you eat something, think about how it could be affected by this seemingly distant and innocuous crop and think about how the farmers you know might be threatened by things entirely beyond their control.
Here's a website with some ways to get involved:

 I've posted this little cartoon video before, but I'll post it again:  

I hope you've got your seed orders in and are looking forward to the growing season not-so-slowly creeping up on us!!