Roundup Ready alfalfa

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For better or for worse, genetically-modified crops have come to Valencia County. In particular, a GM variety of alfalfa, the county’s No. 1 hay crop.

The GM variety of alfalfa, Roundup Ready, has been genetically altered to tolerate the herbicide.

Deborah Fox-News-Bulletin photo: Dolly Wallace, of Wallace Quarter Horses in Bosque Farms, stands with their stallion “Harley.” Wallace won’t risk feeding their horses Roundup Ready alfalfa because of potential digestion problems.

Genetic engineering is different from the traditional agricultural method of hybridization, where the most robust plants are cross-pollinated to develop better plants.

GM plants have been created by scientists in a laboratory taking genetic material from one species with a desired trait, and inserting it into a different species.

“Roundup Ready alfalfa is a plant that has had a gene inserted into it. In this case, that makes it tolerant to glyphosate herbicide,” said Leonard Lauriault, superintendent and forage crop management scientist at New Mexico State University.

This means, a farmer can plant Roundup Ready alfalfa and spray Roundup on his field to kill the weeds, but it wont harm the alfalfa plants, Lauriault said.

The gene introduced to alfalfa to make it withstand an herbicide that would normally kill it, comes from a bacterium that is resistant to Roundup and its weed-killing chemical, glyphosate.

Genetic engineering is complex biotechnology. Basically, scientists first have to isolate the Roundup-resistant gene from the bacteria, then specially prepare it to encourage a successful transfer of the genetic information to alfalfa tissue cells. From those plant cells, they grow Roundup tolerant alfalfa plants.

It’s a process that does not occur naturally in nature, and it is controversial.

There is mounting evidence that glyphosate and GM crops might be linked to human and animal illnesses and allergies.

Genetic engineers John Fagan and Michael Antoniou, and researcher Claire Robinson wrote a report, “GMO Myths and Truths,” saying a large and growing body of scientific and other authoritative evidence shows that GM crops can be toxic, allergenic or less nutritious than their non-GMO counterparts, and that GMOs are not adequately regulated to ensure safety.

“In some cases, GM foods have been found to be less nutritious than their non-GM counterparts due to unexpected effects of the genetic-engineering process,” they report.

According to the maker of Roundup and Roundup Ready alfalfa, the agricultural company, Monsanto, GM crops are safe and have the same nutritive value as conventionally grown crops.

“Biotech crops have been tested more than any other crop in the history of agriculture, and have been shown to be as safe and nutritious as their conventional counterparts,” said Monsanto spokeswoman Kelly Clauss.

But Bosque Farms horse trainer Dolly Wallace isn’t taking any chances feeding her horses Roundup Ready alfalfa. A veterinarian from New Hampshire told her there have been digestive problems in horses regularly being fed Roundup Ready alfalfa.

“We have clients that send us their horses. We keep them here for training and feed them what we feed our horses because these people trust us,” Wallace said. “I don’t want to be liable, but the big thing is, I don’t want a horse to die because I fed it something that I didn’t have a good feeling about. It’s a genetic that is totally unnatural and it’s something that a horse isn’t really meant to eat.”

It’s not just the genetic manipulation that is in question, but also the herbicide Roundup. Farmers can spray Roundup Ready alfalfa as often they need to, potentially building up chemical residues on the plants.

The documented scientific studies analyzed in “GMO Myths and Truths” show that some of the toxic effects linked to glyphosate and other chemicals in Roundup include DNA damage to human cells in vitro and in human mouth cells, endocrine system disruption that can lead to cancer, birth defects, and other reproductive and developmental problems.

Monsanto isn’t the only company manufacturing GMOs; DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer CropScience and Dow also produce them.

Mark Marsalis, the county NMSU forage specialist, says as soon as glyphosate comes into contact with the soil, it becomes inactive.

“There’s no residual left in the soil,” Marsalis said.

He explained that glyphosate is so sensitive that if there is a tiny bit of sand in the sprayer tank, it can make the herbicide inactive.

“It’s that sensitive to soil particles,” he said. “It becomes bound to that soil and it doesn’t do what it’s suppose to do.”

He sees a switch to Roundup Ready as a shift to a potentially less harmful chemical, and because Roundup kills most plants, it lessens the amount of other, more dangerous herbicides being used, he said.

However, soil expert Mike Melendrez, owner of Soil Secrets and Trees That Please in Tomé, says the minerals that are bound up by glyphosate are the nutrients plants need.

“Glyphosate binds the minerals so that plant can’t take up soil nutrients,” Melendrez said. “Without healthy soil, you won’t have healthy plants.”

Melendrez has a degree in human health and has been in the soil and tree business for nearly three decades.

“Human society is being impacted by a lot of different environmental ailments right now,” he said. “Cancer is epidemic. Why? Because our body is responding to the environment. It’s responding to what we’re eating, to what we’re breathing and drinking and we’re getting sick. So, why are we going to intentionally eat something else that is going to make this worse?”

Americans have probably been eating GMO foods for the past 20 years. The USDA and FDA have approved GMOs and do not require them to be listed on food labels, but many European countries require labeling, and many have banned GMOs altogether.

“There have been no legitimately documented evidence to show that genetic modification will affect food supply,” said Lauriault. “First of all, with alfalfa, it’s fed to an animal first, and the genetics of animals are significantly different from genetics of plants. The only difference between that genetically-modified plant and a non-genetically-modified plant is the trait that plant has.

“Those genetics are not passed on to whoever eats it,” he said.

According to an article on GMO labeling by Michael McAuliff in the Huffington Post, the issue may soon gain fresh relevance on Capitol Hill, where a measure backed by Reps. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) and G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) to stop states from requiring GMO labeling could get marked up as early as September. The bill also would allow genetically engineered food to be labeled “100 percent natural.”

“The thing is, people are not educated yet,” Wallace said. “This hasn’t been out that much yet for the average backyard owner to understand that there are some risks involved with it.”

Local molecular biologists and other agricultural scientists did not want to go on record with their comments.

Two good sources of extensive documented studies linking GMOs to human and animal illnesses and allergies are the recently released second edition of “GMO Myths and Truths,” and “Genetic Roulette,” by Jeffrey M. Smith. Smith is also the author of “Seeds of Deception.”

(Editor’s note: In the next issue of the News-Bulletin, we’ll look at how farmers are instructed to prevent cross-pollination of Roundup Ready alfalfa with conventional alfalfa, and how to stop the growth of super-weeds resistant to glyphosate.)


-- Email the author at dfox@news-bulletin.com.