Alfalfa is at a critical point in its reign as the No. 1 forage crop.

The long-awaited draft environmental impact statement (EIS) on Roundup Ready alfalfa was finally released on Dec. 14. After public comments, USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) will complete a final EIS later this year; then seed companies may again be allowed to sell Roundup Ready varieties.

We're hoping that happens, but not just because some alfalfa growers want to use glyphosate to control weeds. The crop needs traits developed through biotechnology to regain its competitive edge against corn, soybeans and other crops in which they're widely used.

As Dan Undersander, University of Wisconsin Extension forage agronomist, puts it, “I am really concerned that, if this GMO (genetically modified organism) doesn't make the market, there will not be any further GMO developments in alfalfa.”

He sees the Roundup Ready trait as a helpful weed-management tool for some Wisconsin alfalfa producers, especially commercial hay growers. But a lot of growers in his state don't need it, he says.

He's more excited about a number of other biotech traits under development but still a few years away. Topping the list is the low-lignin trait that will improve the crop's fiber digestibility and give growers more harvest flexibility. Many Midwestern growers may be able to cut three times per season instead of four — without losing quality.

Taking one less cutting reduces costs and increases yield by up to 30%, Undersander points out. Higher yields are much needed. Alfalfa breeders have done a great job improving the crop's pest resistance and winterhardiness, but yields have remained flat, and that's one big reason the crop has been losing favor.

The low-lignin trait “is going to be of tremendous benefit to farmers, and it'll never make the market if this first one doesn't,” says Undersander.

Biotech traits for improved drought tolerance, disease resistance and bypass protein are also in early development stages. And it's worth noting that Monsanto is not involved in the development of these traits, so less money will be behind them to combat legal challenges.

Hopefully, the EIS will outline procedures that will keep the Roundup Ready gene out of conventional seed lots. Folks such as organic hay growers shouldn't have to worry about losing their markets due to contamination. It seems like, with sufficient distance between transgenic and conventional seed fields, and other safeguards, contamination can be prevented.

If you agree that alfalfa needs genetic engineering, and that growers who want to plant Roundup Ready alfalfa should have that option, make your feelings known during the 60-day comment period that ends Feb. 16.