The hottest issue in the alfalfa industry — whether Roundup Ready alfalfa should again be deregulated — was debated at length during the recent National Alfalfa Symposium in Kearney, NE.

The event was hosted by Hay & Forage Grower and the Nebraska Alfalfa Marketing Association.

A California hay grower and the president of the company that developed the first Roundup Ready alfalfa varieties told why the seed should again be made available to growers. An independent seed producer and a lawyer with the Center for Food Safety argued why the crop should not be commercialized.

The major disagreements: Whether the technology is environmentally safe and whether co-existence strategies will prevent pollen from transferring the transgenic gene into organic and/or conventional alfalfa seed. Another point of contention: whether Roundup Ready alfalfa contributes to glyphosate weed resistance.

The following are major points in each speaker's talk.

Erik Freese, Dixon, CA, planted Roundup Ready alfalfa in the fall of 2005 on acreage “notorious for very invasive weeds that couldn't be controlled” conventionally. But a January rain forced him to replant once, then 2,4-D drift from a neighbor's field in March destroyed 15 of those acres. After that ground was replanted again, the alfalfa and weeds were at various growth stages in the field.

“We were able to suppress and eliminate all the weeds no matter what stage the alfalfa was in,” he said. “Roundup is very capable of achieving the same results as other chemicals we use conventionally. The major difference was, there was no harm done to the alfalfa.”

The transgenic crop yielded better: 7.25 tons/acre in five cuttings. His conventional alfalfa yielded 6 tons/acre from six cuttings.

“With Roundup Ready alfalfa, in essence, I have flown first class and I don't want to go back to coach,” said Freese. “It's one of those technologies that benefits growers im-mensely, and it's a shame that we can't choose whether or not we can still use it.”

Farmer choice is at stake, said Mark McCaslin of Forage Genetics, which developed Roundup Ready alfalfa under a licensing agreement with Monsanto. He urged the symposium crowd of 200 to become activists.

“There are going to be organizations that help drive these decisions (about transgenic crops), and farmers ought to be part of that process,” he said.

Growers like Freese, he added, have used co-existence methods to deal with herbicide drift damage be-tween neighbors for years. He says the alfalfa industry is using that same idea.

A Peaceful Co-existence conference, attended by “a cross-section of alfalfa stakeholders,” formed a steering committee with a three-fold goal.

“First, is co-existence possible? The consensus: Yes,” McCaslin said. An important outcome of that consensus was a gene-flow white paper that asserts there is little chance for pollen transfer between seed and hay fields, he said. A Roundup Ready alfalfa seed production best-management-practices policy was also developed “so everybody's using the same procedures, the same isolation standards, etc.” The third goal: to develop specific co-existence strategies for genetically engineered-sensitive markets, including organic hay and seed and export hay and seed markets.

“It's a science-based co-existence strategy that gives the farmer a choice of what market to produce for and what technology to employ,” McCaslin said.

The transgenic crop, he added, is an “unlikely contributor” to weed resistance to glyphosate, the major ingredient in Roundup. “Roundup Ready growers have the biggest incentive to manage resistance, so if this isn't done right, who suffers? It's the Roundup Ready grower.”

Phillip Geertson, Geertson Seed Farms, Greenleaf, ID, was a plaintiff in the lawsuit resulting in the May 2007 permanent injunction prohibiting the sale of Roundup Ready alfalfa seed until USDA completes an environmental impact statement. He disagreed with McCaslin on several points.

“The development of weed resistance is a very serious problem associated with Roundup Ready alfalfa,” he said. Glyphosate use increases “dramatically” when fields are planted to the transgenic alfalfa, he added.

“Alfalfa is commonly rotated with other crops that are genetically engineered to be resistant to Roundup. As more glyphosate is used with Roundup Ready crops, particularly where Roundup Ready crops are rotated together, Roundup … will become obsolete as weeds in these fields become resistant to glyphosate.”

Related to that: Hard-seed alfalfa can lie dormant in fields for years and volunteer plants are a serious problem when replanting seed-production fields. Glyphosate is currently used to eradicate those plants. “If the volunteer alfalfa plants are Roundup Ready, this valuable tool will be lost to seed producers,” Geertson pointed out.

He also asserted that Roundup Ready alfalfa seed was planted next to conventional alfalfa seed fields without the seed growers being informed of that. “The result has been contaminated seed fields.” USDA should issue rules requiring that conventional seed be tested for transgenic contamination to prevent its spread into additional conventional seed stocks, he suggested.

The Center for Food Safety's Will Rostov, a staff attorney, said the government is using existing laws to regulate biotechnology and that “they are woefully inadequate.”

The Food and Drug Ad-ministration considers ge-netically modified foods to be food additives and presumes that they're safe. It does not require mandatory premarket safety testing of genetically engineered products. In addition, once a genetically modified crop is deregulated, it's no longer on the government's radar screen.

“No further oversight means no further testing,” he added. “So when you hear claims like, ‘There are genetically engineered foods out in the system and there have never been any health problems,’ it's because the federal agencies just don't look at it afterward.”

Further environmental review is necessary because of the possibility of contamination of conventional and organic alfalfa, the loss of international and organic markets, the development of glyphosate-resistant weeds and a dramatic increase in Roundup applications, he said.

“There's a myth that contamination of alfalfa hay fields is nearly impossible. There really hasn't been any study on this. And that's one of the things this environmental impact statement could do,” Rostov said.

“Human error, random events, sub-standard stewardship practices, forces of nature … make it impossible to guarantee a ‘zero tolerance’ threshold. So it questions the co-existence issue for transgenic seeds or plants …”