Forage specialists want transgenic alfalfa debates rooted in science
Is emotion trumping science in debates over the release of Roundup Ready alfalfa? Two forage specialists think so. They've put together a paper debunking what they call misinformation presented at annual conferences around the country.
“We want to dispel some of those myths,” says Dan Undersander, University of Wisconsin extension forage specialist. Undersander and his colleague at University of California-Davis, Dan Putnam, offer “a scientific perspective” for alfalfa growers and industry representatives as they evaluate Roundup Ready (RR) alfalfa.
RR alfalfa, legalized in 2005, lost that designation with a court injunction just about two years later. A USDA environmental impact statement, required by the court, is nearing completion with a public comment period expected in the next month. A decision on whether the transgenic crop should again be made available to growers is expected to follow several months later.
In the meantime, the forage specialists want to make sure the alfalfa industry is well-informed. They've offered Hay & Forage Grower a preview of their paper, which will be published in its entirety at hayandforage.com.
Here's a synopsis of their concerns:
1. Once you release this gene, you can't call it back.
Undersander and Putnam respond that the gene is already out — more than 300,000 acres of RR alfalfa have been planted for hay and a limited amount planted for seed. The real question, they write, is whether growers can continue to plant conventional seed. Their answer: Only non-RR alfalfa is being planted now and, if concerned about contamination, growers can test it for the RR gene.
2. Won't contamination from neighboring fields result in all seed being Roundup Ready eventually?
“No,” they emphasize, citing that seed production methods and isolation distances will keep the presence of the gene “at a very low level for seed” and that “non-genetically enhanced (non-GE) seed will always be available.”
3. Won't my neighbor's RR hayfields contaminate my non-GE alfalfa hay production through pollen and gene flow?
“No,” they write. “There is an extremely low probability of gene flow among hayfields. For this to happen, fields must flower at the same time, pollinators must be present to move pollen (it does not blow in wind), plants must remain in fields four to six weeks after flowering for viable seed production, seed must shatter to fall to the ground and establish on the soil surface, seedlings must overcome autotoxicity to germinate and seedlings must overcome competition from existing plants.”
Pollen can only be carried by pollinators such as bees, and honey bees don't like to pollinate alfalfa, they add. The specialists discuss the difficulties of the seed germinating, concluding that if growers take care to plant non-RR seed, it's unlikely their hayfields will become contaminated with the gene.
4. Will the seed companies be able to keep seed from being contaminated?
“Yes. The greatest real potential for pollen flow and contamination is during seed production,” Undersander and Putnam write. They cite ways the seed industry has agreed to keep track of transgenic seed and reasons why it's in the companies' best interests to do so.
5. Won't feral alfalfa be a source of contamination?
“Feral (wild growing) alfalfa can act as a bridge for moving genes from one seed field to another, and thus should be controlled to prevent gene flow in any area where seed production occurs, whether GE or not. Feral alfalfa is primarily an issue in portions of Western states because little occurs elsewhere,” write the forage specialists. They discuss reasons why feral seed would have low production and suggest that removing plants from ditches and roads is a good idea to prevent gene flow.
6. Won't hard seed be a source of contamination?
“Hard seed of alfalfa generally does not persist for more than one year in moist soils, much less after years of hay production,” they respond. “To guard against hard seed carryover, seed growers take steps to eliminate residual alfalfa volunteers prior to planting. State seed certification standards already require that the alfalfa seed field's history include a two-year exclusion period before planting alfalfa for seed.”
7. Much of the hay in my area is cut late with mature seed — we have good farmers but weather and equipment problems force late cuttings.
“This occasionally happens,” Putnam and Undersander answer. “However, plants must remain in a field for four to six weeks after pollination of flowers for viable seed to form and longer for seed to shatter.” Delayed cutting will cause little to no seed production in hayfields, and hay harvest should remove seed.
The last seven concerns have to do with 8) growing organic hay; 9) export markets; 10) whether seed companies bias the research on RR alfalfa; 11) possible effects it may have on insects, animals or the environment; 12) whether farmers can or will follow stewardship protocols; 13) weed resistance to Roundup and 14) whether the risks of RR alfalfa outweigh the rewards.
“There is also a risk with NOT moving ahead with a technology,” Under-sander and Putnam contend. RR alfalfa will control tough weeds, they write. “Further, if this breeding methodology is permanently banned, it would mean fewer genetic advancements for alfalfa in the future.
“It is important that alfalfa growers and the industry understand how to use this important new genetic tool, while at the same time, protecting those farmers who don't wish to adopt it.”