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RR, non-biotech alfalfa can coexist by being good neighbors

When California started its state lottery, someone calculated that a person was more likely of being attacked by great white sharks — twice — than winning the lottery.

To hear Dan Putnam, University of California (UC) forage specialist, calculate the odds of a hay field of Roundup Ready alfalfa contaminating even a conventional stand of alfalfa, much less a rare organic hay field, sounds like Jaws won the lottery when a judge halted the planting of the latest agricultural biotech breakthrough last spring.

Radical environmental groups convinced a San Francisco judge to halt the sale of RR alfalfa, as well as place onerous restrictions on the harvesting and sale of the herbicide-resistant hay from perhaps as much as 300,000 acres of RR alfalfa which was planted before the ban was ordered.

They said it would contaminate organic fields and wanted a government study.

The ban and restrictions will remain in place until the federal government writes an environmental impact statement (EIS) ordered by the judge or until the injunction is overturned on the appeal filed recently by Monsanto, Forage Genetics and several growers.

The EIS could take 18 more months, said Putnam at a recent UC alfalfa field day at the Kearney Ag Center, Parlier, Calif.

Putnam estimated the odds at “.000000 percent” for RR alfalfa to contaminate and that may be stretching the odds in favor of contamination.

Unfortunately, noted Putnam, when the judge made his ruling, he did not differentiate between hay and seed fields.

For Roundup Ready alfalfa to contaminate a non-biotech hay field, first the hay must flower (not common in commercial alfalfa production) — those few flowers pollinated by bees which had visited a biotech field; a seed pod must set and mature; the seed must fall to the ground and germinate and the plant from that seed be cut and baled.

“If you look at all the environmental filters working against gene flow in hay fields, the probability for contamination is very, very low,” he said.

Nevertheless, Putnam and other alfalfa industry leaders want to create an environment where non-biotech alfalfa and GMO alfalfa can coexist.

There has even been a scientific gathering to foster that idea.

It was entitled “Peaceful Coexistence: Creating a Strategy for Harmony Among GM, Organic, and Conventional Alfalfa Producers.” It was hosted by the National Alfalfa and Forage Alliance (NAFA) in October in Denver.

More than 70 researchers, industry representatives and producers attended.

“Considering what's happened over the course of the past year, I think it was very important for people who participated in this meeting to come away with the feeling that their concerns were heard,” said Beth Nelson, president of NAFA. “We feel we've made some real progress here toward a plan for coexistence that everyone can support.”

Putnam spoke at the conference.

At Kearney, Putnam estimated that 3 percent to 5 percent of people who buy and/or use alfalfa nationwide are “sensitive” to biotech traits for one reason or another. This represents people with horses who object to biotech alfalfa; although there is no scientific evidence that biotech alfalfa adversely affects horses. Others objecting to it are likely organic hay producers who are fearful of biotech gene flow or hay exporters who could be impacted by customers not wanting RR alfalfa.

At least 95 percent of the people who grow or feed alfalfa have no objections to RR alfalfa, according to Putnam's calculations.

Development of RR alfalfa began in late 1990s and it was deregulated in June 2005 after what Putnam said was extensive government evaluation.

Commercial planting of the biotech crop began in earnest in the fall of 2005 and into the spring of 2007 until the judge halted planting.

Initially, Putnam estimated about 200,000 acres of RR alfalfa varieties were planted nationwide before the ban went into effect. Now he believes it is about 330,000. Monsanto, patent holder for the technology, officially says “more than 200,000 acres” were planted. By either estimate, it is generally agreed that 80,000 acres are planted in California.

Putnam notes that the ban could have an environmental impact far greater than unwanted gene flow. The loss of Roundup control could force growers to use alternative herbicides that may pose a threat to groundwater. Horses and dairy animals could die or become ill from eating toxic weeds that could be easily controlled in a growing stand of alfalfa by a benign herbicide like glyphosate.

“Risks are part of any agricultural enterprise just as risks are part of life,” said Putnam. Roundup Ready alfalfa may not prevent groundwater contamination from winter-use herbicides or the death of animals, “but it could have helped.”

Putnam does not believe the vast majority of alfalfa hay buyers and users object to biotech alfalfa.

Some 75 percent to 85 percent of alfalfa produced in the U.S. is sold to dairies; 5 percent to 10 percent into the horse market; about the same for beef production; 1 percent to 1.5 percent into export; 1 percent to sheep and goats, and the organic hay market is close to .5 percent, according Putnam.

“The horse market is the real wild card. There may be some resistance to biotech alfalfa here, but it is more of a personal preference thing,” he said. There are nine million horses in the U.S. An estimated 650,000 are in California.

However, horses can die from eating toxic weeds that could be controlled by the new biotechnology in the forage crop.

The organic market is “very sensitive” to the biotech alfalfa issue. This is the same market that has resisted other biotech crops. Test strips to detect transgenic genes are widely used to verify uncontaminated alfalfa for export.

“Ten percent to 20 percent of the export market does not want biotech alfalfa,” Putnam estimated. “It behooves us to recognize market sensitivity to these issues.”

Putnam said transgenic alfalfa and conventional or organic alfalfa can coexist with a “good neighbor approach” to respecting the other to farm as they choose and not contaminate each others' crops.

However, it is a two-way street. While the organic or conventional alfalfa hay or seed producer does not want a transgenic gene contaminating his crop, RR alfalfa growers do not want insects or weeds from organic or conventional hay infested with weeds or insect pests contaminating their crops.

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