Adoption of Genetically Engineered Alfalfa, Canola, and Sugarbeets in the United States

DanGenetically Modified, Industry News Release

by Jorge Fernandez-Cornejo, Seth Wechsler, and Daniel Milkove, USDA Economic Research Service

What Is the Issue?

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Genetically engineered (GE) varieties of corn, soybeans, and cotton with herbicide-tolerant and/or insect-resistant traits were commercially introduced in the United States in 1996. Twenty years later, most corn, cotton, and soybean farmers use these varieties, and the impacts of adoption have been widely documented. By contrast, relatively little is known about the adoption of GE alfalfa, canola, and sugarbeets, crops that add substantial value to the U.S. agricultural sector. For instance, alfalfa is the fourth largest crop in the United States in terms of acreage and production value. It was also the first widely grown GE perennial to be commercialized. GE alfalfa and GE sugarbeets have been subjects of recent legal controversies.

What Did the Study Find?

Most GE varieties of alfalfa, canola, and sugarbeets have herbicide-tolerant (HT) traits. The most common of these varieties are resistant to glyphosate.


  • Approximately 18 million acres of alfalfa, with a production value of $10.7 billion, were harvested in the United States in 2013. Alfalfa is the fourth largest crop in the United States (in terms of acreage and production value). South Dakota, Montana, North Dakota, Idaho, and Wisconsin account for 42 percent of national acreage devoted to alfalfa.
  • The first GE HT alfalfa varieties were deregulated by USDA in June 2005. Deregulation facilitates commercialization by allowing the introduction (importation, interstate movement, and environmental release) of the GE organism without further authorization from USDA. Following legal action from environmental groups in March 2007, plantings were temporarily suspended while USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) prepared an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Once the applicable regulatory requirements were satisfied, GE HT alfalfa was fully deregulated in February 2011. Planting resumed that spring.
  • Alfalfa is a perennial crop with an average of 6-7 years between plantings. Approximately 3.5 million acres were newly seeded in 2013 (14 percent of the acres that were harvested that year). Nearly one-third of this newly seeded alfalfa acreage was GE HT.
  • Data from USDA’s Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS) indicate that GE HT alfalfa constituted 13 percent of the alfalfa acres harvested in 2013.
  • GE HT alfalfa adoption rates were highest in New York, where approximately 37 percent of the acres that were harvested in 2013 were produced using GE HT. Adoption rates were also relatively high in Washington and Colorado.
  • ARMS data from 2013 suggest that farmers who planted GE HT alfalfa had higher yields than farmers who planted conventional seeds. On average, adopters’ yields were 0.53 ton per acre, approximately 17 percent higher than the yields of other farmers.


  • Approximately 1.3 million acres of canola (an edible version of rapeseed), with a production value of $456 million, were harvested in the United States in 2013. North Dakota, Oklahoma, Montana, Idaho, and Washington accounted for 96 percent of U.S. canola production.
  • GE HT canola varieties were deregulated in 1998. ARMS data indicate that GE HT canola accounted for 95 percent of U.S. canola acres that were harvested in 2013. While this result is based on a small sample, it is consistent with estimates obtained from other sources.

Read the full report.