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At the intersection of food, soil, climate, farming and water.

Making Hay with GM Alfalfa

Uncertainty surrounds the effects of genetically-modified crops and glyphosate on the health of soils, plants, livestock, and people.

Alfalfa is the number one forage crop in the United States.  In January 2011 the USDA approved the release of genetically-modified (GM) alfalfa, raising the prospect that some non-GM alfalfa will be contaminated by GM alfalfa via cross-pollination from bees.  Soon the first cuttings of GM alfalfa will be harvested and fed to livestock.

We know very little about the effects of genetically-modified organisms on livestock and human health.  Researchers in Italy performed a study on some of the effects, and their results were released last year*.  They fed one group of pregnant goats rations with non-GM soybean meal and another group with GM Round-Ready soybean meal.  The mothers received this diet for two months prior to the birth of their kids.  Then the offspring were fed milk only from their mother for 60 days.  The results showed DNA from the GM Roundup-Ready soy in the blood, organs, and milk of goats.  Also, the kids of the mothers fed GM soy had substantially higher levels of an enzyme, lactate dehydrogenase (LDH), in the heart, muscles, and kidneys.  Similar metabolic changes have been found in studies of GM-fed rabbits and mice, as well.

When cells are damaged in mammals, LDH levels are elevated.  It is a key indicator of cancer, and LDH remains elevated after a heart attack.  Increased LDH is associated with several other disorders.  That’s not to say that LDH itself is a bad thing.  It’s an enzyme crucial to the function of animals and plants.  However, it would be good to find out why the kids in this study had elevated LDH levels relative to the kids whose mothers didn’t receive GM soy as part of their diet.  The unknown consequences of long-term changes in cell metabolism are a cause of serious concern.

In this study, the goats received GM soy as a small portion of their feed.  When livestock start eating Roundup-Ready GM alfafa, it will greatly increase the quantitiy of genetically-modified organisms they’re eating.  Depending on the feed rations, GM crops could make up the majority of what many livestock eat.

Research has shown lower levels of nutrients in crops sprayed with Roundup.  These crops are specifically engineered to tolerate the herbicide Roundup, whose use has increased with the release of Roundup-Ready GM crops.  Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, decreases nutrient availability and uptake in plants.  Some of these nutrients help plants and animals fight disease.  Recent studies have shown a link between high rates of spontaneous abortions and infertility in livestock fed GM Roundup-Ready crops.

Genetically-modified organisms and glyphosate account for a huge amount of their producer Monsanto’s profits.  Now they’ve invested too much in biotechnology to heed any warnings.  They’ll ignore negative outcomes to perpetuate sales of the GM crops and glyphosate they’ve become so dependent on.  In the six months preceding the release of GM alfalfa they spent almost three million dollars lobbying Congress.  Couldn’t some of that money have been devoted to studying the effects of GM crops and glyphosate on soil, plant, and animal health?  If LDH levels went up in the kids of goats fed genetically-modified organisms, what happens to humans when we drink milk from cows fed even greater amounts of GM crops?

It’s unclear whether the tremendous increased numbers of GM crops is principally driven by a desire to help farmers or feed the world or a cynical calculation by corporations like Monsanto.  Even with the best of intentions, given evidence of potential harm, consumers should at least have the choice between buying food labeled GM or not.  As it stands, most people have about as much choice as a poor cow trapped in a feedstall.

*R. Tudisco, V. Mastellone, M. I. Cutrignelli, P. Lombardi, F. Bovera, N. Mirabella, G. Piccolo, S. Calabro, L. Avallone and F. Infascelli (2010).  Fate of transgenic DNA and evaluation of metabolic effects in goats fed genetically modified soybean and in their offspring.  animal, 4, pp. 1662-1671