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Roundup Ready alfalfa — Monsanto’s big goof?

I don’t know how to jigger genes around to make biotech alfalfa or anything else, but I do know a thing or two about making alfalfa hay. Whether Monsanto’s Roundup Ready alfalfa is harmful to health or not I don’t know either and wonder if anyone does for sure. But the majority of scientists, after much study, have pronounced RR alfalfa safe to feed and to eat. I have to assume (I guess) that most of the people involved sincerely believe that their findings are reliable and that they are not being paid off by Monsanto to fudge the results. Maybe I’m wrong about that too, but in the long run, who can you trust if not the conclusions of science, imperfect as they often are.

I think RR alfalfa is a big mistake for another reason. Weeds are rarely a problem in alfalfa cut for hay, so who needs the stuff. Alfalfa seed is expensive enough as it is. If biotech alfalfa seed goes up horrendously in price like biotech seed corn has, who would want to buy it?

If I had a dime for every bale of alfalfa I’ve handled, I’d have a very nice nest egg in the bank right now not drawing any interest. Before farming went to the corn, soybeans, and Florida rotation where I live, weeds were not nearly as problematical as they are now. The rotation then was corn, oats/wheat, and two or more years of hay. If the hay was alfalfa, it meant that for those years it was cut three times a summer, sometimes four. A good stand of alfalfa over four years of regularly cutting quashed almost all weed growth very effectively.

Sometimes in the first year that a field is seeded to alfalfa, weeds can be problematical but the alfalfa will grow right along with them if growing conditions are normal. The stand might look bad for a little while, but after the first cutting for hay, the alfalfa will spring back faster than the weeds. After the second cutting, the alfalfa grows back strongly again and the weeds diminish. By the second year’s second cutting, weeds are mostly gone. I just watched my brother-in-law’s field down the road go through this transformation over the past four years. The alfalfa looked so weedy at first that we cringed every time another farmer ventured past to see the mess, but now it looks magnificent and ought to last two more years anyway. And another thing: during the time that weeds might be bad in this situation, with multiple cuttings all summer they will be mostly in a good vegetative state when cut and make good nutritional feed too.

So why RR alfalfa? As far as I can figure, the commercial alfalfa seed growers in the West must have a weed problem because when harvesting for seed, they are not cutting their alfalfa so frequently. Seems to me the money they save by not growing seed the old way they will spend buying the new biotech seed. Then if the weeds grow immune to herbicides anyway, like they have already started to do, who has gained?

Organic growers have a good way to solve the problem of biotech alfalfa contaminating their hay crop. Switch to red or white clovers. I did thirty years ago because on my heavy clay soils, alfalfa doesn’t grow as well as red clover. Also red clover does not frost-heave as badly as alfalfa and is immune to the alfalfa weevil which is a problem here. Red clovers and some whites are fairly easy to sow by frost seeding, certainly better than alfalfa, which alone was reason enough for me to switch. And we can grow our own red clover seed in the humid eastern half of the country, not true of alfalfa. If half the haymakers quit growing alfalfa, even though it produces more tonnage if you spend the money to fertilize it heavily, the commercial seed growers would be the ones to suffer. Of course, I suppose if we all go that route, Monsanto will rush in to save us with an RR red clover. I wonder if agribusiness will eventually RR everything in nature and charge us a fee to gather hickory nuts.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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