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RR alfalfa growers have only high praise for biotech forage crop

Alfalfa growers and dairymen listening to Mick Canevari, UC farm advisor, detailing the result of a survey of the select few who have field experience with Roundup Ready alfalfa, must have felt like kids looking through a candy store window with the front door welded shut.

Those who did not get seed in the ground before March 2007 must wait a long time to experience the benefits of the new technology because a liberal federal court San Francisco judge and a radical environmental group have managed to take herbicide-resistant alfalfa off the market for at least 18 months to make the government jump through a technical hoop.

In the meantime, growers are losing an estimated $50 per acre in added income through reduced weed control costs and improved quality they could experience if they were allowed to plant RR alfalfa.

The irony of it is that the judge did not rule RR alfalfa harmful to humans, animals, or the environment and left established an estimated 330,000 acres of the first biotech forage planted before the March 2007 ruling that says USDA must file an environmental impact statement on a technology that had already been scrutinized by a host of federal and state agencies for years before it was released for commercial sale.

The total U.S. RR alfalfa acreage estimate is from UC Davis Alfalfa Specialist Dan Putnam, who estimates 80,000 of that is in California. Monsanto, developer of the technology, says the acreage planted before the injunction was “more than 200,000.”

That is a lot less than a drop in the bucket of the 24 million acres of alfalfa planted in the U.S., but it is a bucket filled with a select few, enthusiastic supporters if Canevari's survey of Western growers is any indication of nationwide sentiments.

Canevari is a long time agronomy farm advisor in San Joaquin County, Calif. and was a key UC researcher in field development work on RR alfalfa.

Canevari's survey results revealed at the annual California Alfalfa Symposium in Monterey covered 24 growers, 11 consultants, 3 seed companies and 5 university researchers in California, Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, Washington, and New Mexico.

Canevari's responses would make a presidential candidate green with envy.

He called it “overwhelmingly positive for weed control along with other advantages like maintaining weed-free fields, forage quality, productivity, stand population, and price.”

Control of perennial weeds like nutsedge, dodder, quackgrass, Bermudagrass and Johnsongrass was the overwhelming reason for planting RR alfalfa.

A total of 24 weeds were listed as controlled with the new technology, over half are considered problematic in conventional alfalfa, noted Canevari.

The 24 growers surveyed were producing 4,600 acres of RR alfalfa planted; consultants were managing 5,000 acres and seed companies had sold seed for 6,900 acres.

All 24 growers were satisfied with RR alfalfa. They cited among other things, less herbicide use, higher test hay, a third of a ton yield increase, higher prices for the cleaner hay and improved water efficiency.

One grower used only two applications of Roundup in two and a half years to control weeds.

Canevari asked those surveyed to rate RR alfalfa usefulness to the industry on a scale of 1-10 with 10 the most useful. The score was 9.

Many growers indicated they would forgo new acreage or cut back planned new alfalfa plantings until RR alfalfa is back on the market.

On the other hand, one grower responded that he took out his herbicide-resistant alfalfa because of all the onerous regulations the judge imposed on growers who had it planted before the March injunction.

The most onerous rule — tagging every bale of RR alfalfa-has subsequently been rescinded by USDA after an outcry from producers and hay brokers. Now only loads must be identified as RR alfalfa on manifests.

The rules were the biggest negative in the survey.

Those surveyed were not asked who is at fault about the planting moratorium, however, virtually everyone surveyed laid the blame somewhere.

“Blame was distributed to all parties from USDA, Monsanto, the organic industry and the environmental community who were either not engaged during the alfalfa registration process or understand enough of agricultural practices to make an informed decision,” reported Canevari.

“Equally frustrating is how the process is being interpreted through the legal system. Most felt that the public has been misinformed on the potential threats of RR alfalfa, although everyone believes that we must continue to research the human, agronomic and environmental impact this technology brings to society.”

In the meantime, those unfortunate producers who did not get RR alfalfa seed in the ground before March 5, 2007 can only press their frustrated noses against the glass of the candy store and repeat, “Open, Open, Open,” like the shopper in the department store television ad.

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