Those of us who work with alfalfa have seen our much-loved Queen of Forages relegated to poster child of all things evil about genetic engineering (GE) and the supposed damage it may wreak. While hay growers have always felt alfalfa has received insufficient attention – this was probably not what they had in mind!

I’m referring, of course, to the release of Roundup Ready alfalfa (RRA) in 2005 and the subsequent lawsuit that stopped its planting from 2007 until 2011 – a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court!

The drama continues today with newly minted lawsuits, as farmers once again plant RRA and conventional alfalfa throughout the U.S. But what does this ballyhoo mean for those who actually grow alfalfa?

At the heart of the controversy is coexistence: whether cross-pollination from GE alfalfa would completely prevent organic or other growers, who didn’t want GE alfalfa, from practicing agriculture as they see fit. Or, alternatively, whether farmers can adopt methods to avoid undue neighbor influence or contamination.

Successful coexistence can be defined as the ability of diverse production systems (organic, GE-adopting, conventional) to thrive without excessive neighbor influence or resorting to extraordinary protection measures.

Is coexistence possible? The answer is a definitive “yes” based on history and principle. Agriculture is replete with examples of farmers adjusting and cooperating to make diverse systems work. In principle, there’s no technical reason that diverse farming practices cannot coexist.

So if you produce alfalfa for organic, export or other markets that don’t want GE crops, what is required? The answer is very different for those who grow alfalfa for hay vs. those who produce seed. Seed requires considerable isolation distances to prevent contamination – and always has.

For hay, a series of steps can reduce this risk to very low levels.

The first and most important step is to plant seed tested and determined as non-GE. Plenty of conventional seed is available, as are inexpensive testing methods, to ensure that the seed is non-GE. Seed companies have committed to produce conventional seed in the future, including seed destined for GE-sensitive markets.

The next step is to ensure that contamination doesn’t happen during harvest – through partial bales moving in balers from field to field or accidental misidentification of hay lots. This is likely the second-highest risk of contamination.

The lowest – but not zero – risk of contamination in hay: inadvertent gene flow from hayfield to hayfield.

Neighbors can reduce this risk further by: 1) Controlling unharvested plants on field edges and feral alfalfa along roadsides to prevent seed production; 2) Routinely harvesting hay to prevent excessive flowering; and 3) Completely removing crop before excessive flowering or seed production. That prevents permanent contamination, since seed must fall to the ground and grow into new plants to contaminate hayfields.

Lastly, it is important to understand thresholds or market tolerance.

Does a single RRA stem, accidently baled in a 200-ton lot of conventional hay (containing billions of stems), constitute contamination? That will be market-determined. Commercially available test strips will likely satisfy most if not all sensitive markets of a hay product’s non-GE status. All markets have thresholds for contaminants, and there is no reason to believe this to be an exception.

In short, methods are readily available to ensure an alfalfa crop’s non-GE status, even as neighbors start growing GE alfalfa. These require a higher awareness of gene flow and other avenues of contamination, but don’t appear to be onerous or difficult.

We also should not underestimate the importance of mutual respect and willingness to cooperate among parties as keys to a coexistence strategy. It is obvious that coexistence is impossible if parties are unwilling to listen to each other, allow a diversity of viewpoints or develop a way to resolve disputes.

The alfalfa industry has largely stepped forward to support diverse systems within the agricultural landscape and needs to continue to do so.

This has been the case with National Alfalfa & Forage Alliance efforts to promote coexistence the past five years, which continue today.

Seed companies and growers continue to negotiate isolation distances for GE and non-GE seed production. Likewise, hay farmers have demonstrated coexistence by growing RRA and organic alfalfa successfully on the same farms (see Hay & Forage Grower, “Coexistence Can Work For Alfalfa Growers,” May 2011 issue).

This year in California’s Imperial Valley, seed, hay and organic growers, exporters and seed companies have met extensively and decided to prohibit RRA in their region due to the close proximity of seed, hay, biological factors and the importance of seed and hay exports.

These are examples of “bottom-up” coexistence approaches led largely by farmers and companies – in contrast to regulations decided in Washington or through the courts.

The concept of right-to-farm and coexistence between neighbors and diverse industries is not new to agriculture. Yet the introduction of GE alfalfa and its potential influence on neighboring farmers requires improved coexistence strategies for alfalfa.

Editor’s Note: For another view on coexistence, see http://hayandforage.com/hay/alfalfa/roundup-ready/reader-doubts-rra/ .