Possible contamination of conventional alfalfa’s seed supply by Roundup Ready alfalfa was a hot point of the most recent debate over whether or not the transgenic crop should again be legalized.

National Hay Association members, at their Sept. 17-20 annual meeting, heard from two of the leading figures in the Roundup Ready issue. They are Mark McCaslin of Forage Genetics, the company licensed by Monsanto to develop Roundup Ready alfalfa, and Phillip Geertson, the semi-retired Greenleaf, ID, conventional seed producer who’s the major plaintiff in the federal lawsuit that resulted in the ruling to pull the transgenic crop off the market.

Also a part of the discussion was Andrea Huberty, USDA-APHIS project coordinator for the Roundup Ready alfalfa environmental impact statement (EIS), which is required before the transgenic alfalfa’s fate is determined.

All three of the panelists made 10-minute presentations. McCaslin told of the benefits of biotech in finding ways to add stress tolerance, digestibility and yield improvements to alfalfa and stressed that the transgenic crop could safely coexist with conventional alfalfa. Geertson showed slides of forage alfalfa gone to seed, feral alfalfa along ditches and roadsides and volunteer alfalfa in fields to make a case for the possibility of contamination of conventional alfalfa with Roundup Ready alfalfa.

Huberty told the group that the EIS is on schedule and that she hopes to have it available for public comment by the end of the year. She also said the statement’s purpose was to look at issues like possible contamination or other impacts that may happen with the deregulation of Roundup Ready alfalfa.

Afterward, hay growers, dealers and brokers asked the panel questions on contamination, safety and grower or dealer/broker liability with contaminated seed or hay. Here’s a snapshot of the question-and-answer period:

Is there any evidence that biotech alfalfa is safe or unsafe for feed use as compared to conventional alfalfa?

Huberty: The Food and Drug Administration evaluated data submitted on Roundup Ready alfalfa “in terms of whether or not it was safe for food or feed. They found that there is essentially no difference except for the trait of Roundup resistance in the alfalfa.”

Geertson: “There are a lot of people who do not agree with that. They feel that the genetically engineered plants should be checked for safety, for health of the animals and health of the people. You’re dealing with a product with no tests as to whether it’s safe or not. By this philosophy, they could get the gene out of the strychnine plant and move it into corn and corn could be as deadly as strychnine.”

McCaslin: “That determination that FDA made is based on what they call substantial equivalents, so there’s no philosophical basis for this. They don’t say philosophically it should be; they actually ask that tests be run to prove that it is (safe). You’re (Geertson) incorrect in saying those tests aren’t conducted. They’re required for every trait that gets deregulated, so there’s a tremendous amount of safety information that is generated as far as that approval process with FDA.”

Roundup Ready corn and soybeans have been out for awhile. Were there problems with those crops or can’t we compare the two with Roundup Ready alfalfa in terms of crop pollination in fields?

Huberty: “Alfalfa is different. It is the first product that is insect-pollinated and it’s a perennial. So the amount of gene flow between those crops can be very different than what it is for alfalfa. Those are the issues that the judge pointed out that we needed to address in our environmental impact statement.”

I’d like to see both (transgenic and conventional alfalfa) be available. But I’ve also thought about the edges of the fields and the future ability to control stray (transgenic) plants. How much of a problem is contamination?

McCaslin: “There’s been a seed certification program in existence for several decades, and it’s administered by AOSCA, the Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies. But it’s exercised on a state level by state crop improvement associations. AOSCA has national standards for practices that it requires for certified seed production that ensures genetic integrity of the seed you produce. And one of the requirements is that you have a minimum of 165’ of isolation between your seed field and any other alfalfa whether that’s feral growing on roadsides, seed fields or a hay field. In order to get the seed certified, there’s at least one visit by the seed certifying agency and in most cases, two or three. Those practices have been widely practiced and our seed certification system is really the envy of the world. We’ve done a phenomenal job across all crops, not just alfalfa, of maintaining genetic integrity of varieties through seed cert and practices. So with Roundup Ready alfalfa, the basis is, you obviously follow all the seed certification rules. Realizing that gene flow is a more sensitive issue, we’ve adopted additional isolation requirements. In California, for example, rather than 165’, the rule is three miles.
“A whole chapter addresses the issue of feral alfalfa plants and potential gene flow from feral to hay and feral to seed (in the just-released Gene Flow in Alfalfa: Biology, Mitigation, and Potential Impact on Production, published by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology). Again, their conclusion in the paper was that, although there very likely will be some feral alfalfa plants with the Roundup Ready transgene, it represents such a small pollen source in comparison with seed production, especially with the pollen available in the seed field, it should have no significance.”

What about the stuff (alfalfa gone to seed) along the fields and ditches?

McCaslin: With hay and seed production, you’re required to control that to a distance of 165’.

Geertson: “I just showed those pictures and what they (growers) are practicing were out there … What is going on in the real world isn’t even close to what they’re suggesting they can do (using stewardship practices). You don’t have any requirements or penalties for somebody violating the rules. You know how it’s going to be out there in the farm country. People are going to do what they want to do.”

Huberty: “I’ll say how we’re addressing this in the environmental impact statement. We’re looking at those two extremes. We take the instance where everyone followed it (regulations) to a T and we take the instance where nobody is going to follow it. And we look at the environmental conflict of both sides. We take into account people essentially not following the rules.”

McCaslin: Every Roundup Ready alfalfa seed field has to be planted under the isolation requirements outlined in the best management practices document. “Any grower who wants to plant conventional seed can call his local crop improvement association and say, ‘I am interested in planting conventional seed and I want to find out how far it is from Roundup Ready’ and the crop improvement association will share that information.”

Geertson: “The certification program that we’ve had in the past to prevent the genetic transfer between varieties – there have been some real tolerances there. If you have a three-dormancy alfalfa planted next to another seed field of three-dormancy alfalfa, you’re going to get some transfer there. They know that and they’ve made these rules to try to minimize that. However, it’s accepted that there will be quite a bit of transfer there. But consequences between a Roundup Ready alfalfa and a conventional alfalfa are much greater. When you do a seeding of an alfalfa, the certification rules will be as low as much as 1% hard seed that came in and invaded the new seed. I don’t think that anybody here raising alfalfa – who wants to raise conventional alfalfa – is going to accept 1% contamination of Roundup Ready alfalfa.
“There’s another thing about this perennial plant that’s pollinated by bees that transfer for a long ways. Once it’s (Roundup Ready alfalfa) introduced into the environment, it’s not going to be able to be recalled if by some remote chance it does show to have some problems. Now, with corn and soybeans and other things, if there were problems, and there have been problems, they can be recalled.
“Mark (McCaslin) is talking about all these other changes that they’re going to do to alfalfa, and when they introduce them out into the environment, they’re not going to be recalled. So I think those should have very specific tests as to whether they’re safe or not. And at this point there’s very little being done on it. If people don’t want to eat genetically modified plants, they have the right to make that choice. When you introduce Roundup Ready alfalfa or any genetic trait to perennial plants or plants cross-pollinated by bees and have a lot of hard seed, you’re taking that choice away from the people who want to eat non-genetic-engineered food.”

Is the farmer liable for making sure it (Roundup Ready alfalfa) doesn’t go to seed and doesn’t contaminate the seed crop?

McCaslin: “When a hay grower buys Roundup Ready alfalfa seed, that hay grower signs a technology license with Monsanto, which owns the gene. That technology agreement binds the grower to the technology-use guide, the TUG. And the TUG outlines … when you have to cut, stand takeout, all the requirements. The grower is liable through contract to follow the management practices as outlined in the TUG. There is grower liability just as there is with all the other biotech crops.”

Geertson: “That grower contract … how enforceable is it? Will they enforce it? They obviously so far with Roundup Ready alfalfa have not enforced it.”

McCaslin: “They (Monsanto) have a 1-800 number; it’s 1-800-roundup, so anybody who sees … a grower who is not following those rules, you call that number. It’s an anonymous report. You say that the grower on this location is not following the rules and they’ll send somebody out to check on it.”

Geertson: “One neighbor isn’t going to squeal on another.”

McCaslin: “You would be surprised. It’s an anonymous reporting service and I know that they’re pretty committed on following up on growers who are not following the rules. It’s the basis of stewardship. It’s the basis of coexistence and we all have a vested interest in it.”

If a grower unintentionally plants seed that contains (a biotech) gene in the seed and puts it on the market, is he liable to pay Monsanto a license fee?

McCaslin: “If it’s accidental presence, absolutely not. Monsanto’s been very public about that.”

Geertson: “How about when a Roundup Ready alfalfa seed grower gets his neighbor’s seed field contaminated and then you’re selling this conventional seed that’s contaminated? Should he tell the buyer that he’s selling contaminated seed? Whose responsibility is this? USDA, when it made the rules on segregating alfalfa, gave the rule that you have to sweep off your trucks and clean out your balers, which was so much B.S. But they refused to make any rule or regulation concerning the sale of conventional alfalfa seed that is contaminated with the Roundup Ready gene. We know there is a lot of alfalfa that is contaminated out there and it is being sold and you’re going to be planting it on the farm. So when you experience the problems with it, who are you going to sue? Who’s responsible for that? The only law we can use on that is the general trespass law. That definitely is a trespass in the area of dominion when you get something on your farm that you don’t want.”

This same issue happened to canola and the worst thing happened. Monsanto took over these small companies that were producing canola seed because they got that genetic Roundup Ready in their seed from blowing off their trucks. How are you preventing this from happening to the hay grower? I don’t want to lose an independent seed producer because I want to be able to buy seed from somebody other than Monsanto. I don’t want to buy expensive seed if I can buy cheaper seed from a little guy without the advertisement or television.

Huberty: “Those are the issues that are going to be looked at and developed in the environmental impact statement. We’re looking at impacts of both seed and hay, of having varieties available to the public for purchase and what the implications are from business and economics for both individual and larger organizations. USDA believes that organic production, use of genetically engineered varieties and conventional farming all provide benefits to consumers and farmers. So it’s trying to have that balance so everybody has a choice of what they want to buy, whether it’s the cheapest genetically engineered variety or a variety down the street. But recognize that genetically engineered varieties are the only ones that are regulated. They’re the only ones that go through any sort of federal process and are approved for use on the markets.”

Geertson: “There are a lot of growers out in our area who have a good conscious and they don’t want to sell contaminated seed into the marketplace. So they made the decision that they’re just going to get out of the alfalfa seed business because the area around them is contaminated with Roundup Ready alfalfa. I don’t know where we’re going to grow conventional alfalfa seed now in the United States that isn’t contaminated.”

McCaslin: “I think I can speak for the vast majority of the alfalfa seed industry and say that those companies are committed, for the very long term, of producing both (conventional and transgenic seed) should Roundup Ready alfalfa be deregulated. And I know that the quality control practices that we’re using internally at Forage Genetics and Cal/West and Pioneer and Dairyland are very simple quality-control procedures to make sure that conventional variety seed stock stays conventional with no contamination. We routinely screen all of our breeding stock to make sure that they’re true to type and there’s no contamination from Roundup Ready if it’s conventional, that it’s the right dormancy, that it has the traits that we’re promising.”

Is the environmental impact statement going to look at the accumulated use of glyphosate in genetically engineered crops?

Huberty: “We’re looking at cumulative use in the environment of glyphosate, not necessarily at a farm level. Because you have Roundup Ready alfalfa, you typically wouldn’t plant another Roundup Ready crop afterwards because the alfalfa volunteers over the next season and you’re not going to get rid of it unless you use other herbicides. So we’re looking at the costs involved in changing, essentially, the inputs that are put in that farm over time and what are the practices available to that farmer if he’s using Roundup Ready alfalfa.”

Geertson: “The issue of hard seed is one of the most important issues, as this is continuing contamination. When you raise an alfalfa field and harvest the seed, you always drop on the ground a fairly large percentage of the seed. As seed growers we try to combine it and do the best that we can. But, often times, with weather conditions and wind, it will blow the seed out. Those alfalfa seed fields, particularly if they are grown for three or four years, have a very high buildup of the seed in the ground, … and that hard seed can last for years. I’ve seen fields come up almost with a solid stand of alfalfa four years after it had any alfalfa grown in it because of the hard seed. We’re saying that that should be analyzed. So far, indications are that they’re just going to gloss over that, whitewash and say there isn’t anything to this hard seed thing.
“The other thing is the cross-pollination and the transfer into the feral alfalfa plants around, on county roads, right of ways and other areas. And in city lots. Those are typically sprayed with glyphosate and when that is done and repeatedly sprayed there, those plants over a period of time are going to be 100% Roundup Ready. Then there will be absolutely no way you can go in there and control those in the future. So this report that you’re going to come up with has to acknowledge that once Roundup Ready alfalfa is thoroughly through the environment, it will never be able to be recalled. Now if the public says that’s okay … I won’t say any more. But I don’t think the general public is going to accept that. And there are a lot of people who want to eat organic food. If you allow this to happen, you’re going to destroy the organic business. I don’t think in your environmental impact statement that you can say that that is an insignificant effect and that you can go and deregulate Roundup Ready alfalfa. Those are the issues and that’s the reason I don’t think Roundup Ready alfalfa is ever going to see daylight again as far as being legally sold.”

Huberty: “For the environmental impact statement itself, we will be analyzing the effects of hard seed, the event of gene flow between seed and feral and hay – all of those issues will be addressed as well as the impact of Roundup Ready alfalfa and the impact on organic business.”

Are you going to have so-called controls out and test random fields for the Roundup Ready gene in alfalfa?

McCaslin: “We’re doing that today. We’re testing all of our conventional seed lots as they come in from the field and then we’re doing random tests of grab samples (of conventional seed).”

Geertson: “There is a good way that you can test the seed that you buy this spring. When you plant your fields, over-plant a little area and then spray it with Roundup after it comes up. If there are any surviving (alfalfa) plants out there you will know that you are contaminated. I hope that you will inform the state department of ag and have them come out and take a look at it and then send the information on to me.”

McCaslin: “There is an even simpler way. There’s a relatively simple seed test that’s used for the export seed industry to test for the presence of the Roundup Ready transgene in seed lots. A number of labs across the country do that. So if you’re buying commercial seed and you’re concerned about low levels of adventitious presence, it would be pretty routine to have that seed tested if that was the concern.”

Geertson: “On those tests they do 1,000 seeds. There are 220,000 seeds in a pound of alfalfa. When you plant a 50-lb bag, it’s very likely that those tests could miss a lot of seed. When you take out just 1,000 seeds, you’re taking a very small percentage of seed out of the bag. So you can very likely miss a lot of the transgenic seed in there. However, when you do this proposition of planting an acre or whatever, and you put on 4-5 lbs of seed, even if there’s one or two seeds in there, it’ll show up in this test when you spray.”

Is there any place left in the world that can grow non-genetic alfalfa?

McCaslin: “There are places in the U.S. where we are doing that today. We’re the largest exporter of alfalfa seed. Almost all that export is going to countries where Roundup Ready is not deregulated, so you have to show non-detectable (zero) levels of adventitious presence. We produce for those markets today in areas where you can produce zero-detect Roundup Ready; we do that on a routine basis in the U.S. We produce seed in Canada and Australia and other places also, but we’re certainly not relying on those countries for non-GE seed production.”

Huberty: “Actually, all that is talked about in the environmental impact statement. We look at the effect of deregulation of RR alfalfa in trade.”

Geertson: “I’ve had a small export business of alfalfa seed to New Zealand. We’ve given that business up because we know now that we can’t produce alfalfa seed that does not have the possibility of some contamination. If one of those New Zealand farmers sprays his field out with Roundup and then finds this transgenic plant there, it would come back on us very quickly. I’m not going to take the chance of sending any more seed to New Zealand. In Nevada I have 40 acres of an alfalfa variety that we were going to send to New Zealand. Forage Genetics contracted with a farmer about two miles away and they planted over 130 acres of Roundup Ready alfalfa ... We had that (40 acres) tested and it tested positive. Then we took another test and that test didn’t show anything. But, still, we knew for certain there was some of the transgene in that seed lot.”

Supposing I have a Roundup-resistant alfalfa field for three or four years and I decide that I’m going to rotate and grow soybeans the following year. How am I going to get rid of that resistant alfalfa in my soybean fields?

McCaslin: “First of all, just do a good job of taking out the stand. There are recommendations in the technical use guide in terms of what herbicides.”

Geertson: “Then if you want to do a real good job, get a tweezers and go around to all the fields that have all of these hard seeds that are laying there.”

Audience Comment: I think the real question is, ‘Why can’t it (Roundup Ready alfalfa) be managed in some fashion? There is no question that there are issues. They have to be dealt with. But you know what, there was a problem with the first tractors that came out, too. And there were problems with GPS systems, too. They have to be resolved and managed and taken care of. We have to have a watchdog agency that does that ... We have the USDA involved and I think that’s an appropriate process. I’m glad to have seen it go this far because … in the end, we have to move forward. We have a world to feed.”

Geertson: “I don’t want anyone to think that I’m anti-technology, but we have to be careful with trangenics.”

McCaslin: “As I talk to my colleagues in the seed industry, we all look at biotech traits as being a part of our future and it’s the only way, I think, that alfalfa’s going to compete long-term with corn and corn silage. These traits are being introduced in other crops, making them more profitable. Alfalfa competes with those crops, for acres, for shares in the rumen in dairy diets. We have some opportunity, I think, especially with some of these quality traits that actually make alfalfa a larger part of animal diets rather than a smaller part. And we’ve been heading in the wrong direction. I think biotech traits are what kept our crops competitive.”

Huberty: “Within the public comment period for the draft environmental impact statement, we will be having public meetings (Likely held on the East and West Coasts and in the Midwest). Everyone can come out and talk to us about the issues that were raised in addition to putting in your public comments on the document itself.”

Audience Comment: “We always want bigger yields, higher crop values. We’ve got to compete against urban sprawl; we’ve got to be competitive in the world. But DDT when that came out it was approved and it’s been bad. So please be careful.