With good stewardship and other safeguards, Roundup Ready alfalfa seed and forage producers can coexist with organic and conventional growers without adversely impacting them, said speakers at a recent conference in Denver, CO.

“Peaceful Coexistence: Creating a Strategy for Harmony Among GM, Organic and Conventional Alfalfa Producers” was presented by the National Alfalfa and Forage Alliance (NAFA). Its purpose, according to NAFA president Beth Nelson, was to bring together various “stakeholders” to develop a plan that will help growers of the three types of alfalfa coexist after the Roundup Ready alfalfa ban is lifted.

Better communication among seed companies regarding the location of Roundup Ready seed fields, sufficient isolation of those fields from conventional and organic seed fields, and identification and separation of transgenic and non-transgenic hay lots were among recommendations.

A recognition that farmers have a right to farm the way they want without being harmed by others is another point that was emphasized.

“In general, a good-neighbor approach should be effective in most cases,” said Dan Putnam, University of California extension forage agronomist.

A summary of information gathered at the conference was to be sent to USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) as a possible aid in preparing the court-ordered Roundup Ready alfalfa environmental impact statement. Andrea Huberty, an APHIS biotechnologist, told the group that the statement, which is expected to result in deregulation of the transgenic crop,should be completed early in 2009.

That was good news to the mostly pro-Roundup Ready audience. The speakers were largely neutral, though most believed that, with proper safeguards, successful long-term coexistence can be achieved.

One exception was Fred Kirschenmann, a Windsor, ND, organic farmer and former director of Iowa State University's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. He fears that, even with safeguards in place, Roundup Ready alfalfa will cross-pollinate with other alfalfas via birds, bees, seed harvesting equipment or human error.

“You can reduce the risk of contamination, but eliminating the risk I don't think is a possibility,” said Kirschenmann.

Even Roundup Ready alfalfa grown for forage is a potential threat, he add-ed. Seed washed into fencelines and ditches after planting may eventually blossom and shed pollen, as may fields that don't get harvested on time.

“It shouldn't be a problem with forage alfalfa because pollination isn't going to take place,” he said. “But in the real world, if it rains and you can't get it harvested, some of it will go into blossom.”

But Putnam said the risk of pollen moving from one hay field to another is low in most situations — about at the same level as other neighbor-to-neighbor impacts, such as pesticide drift.

The risk of pollen moving between seed fields is much higher, and two or three speakers asked for better information on isolation — the distance needed between those fields to minimize problems.

Putnam estimated that buyers of 3-5% of U.S. alfalfa don't want genetically modified hay. They include organic dairies, certain export markets, some horse interests and others who simply don't want it.

Respecting the needs of growers producing for those markets is a “fundamental principle,” he said.

Other speakers included a Roundup Ready alfalfa grower;an alfalfa exporter; representatives from the National Corn Growers Association, U.S. Feed Grains Council and Idaho Crop Improvement Association; and seed company officials.