With the number of people involved in agriculture reduced to a very small percentage of the total population, it’s a shame that we sometimes quarrel amongst ourselves.
So it is, or was, in the dispute over whether growers should be allowed to plant Roundup Ready alfalfa. When you read this, seed of the biotech crop may be cleared for planting again for the first time since early 2007, or likely will be soon.
During the past four years, most pro- and anti-Roundup Ready groups and individuals have steadfastly held onto their views for and against the biotech crop. Those against deregulation have repeatedly predicted dire consequences for hay growers targeting the organic and export markets if Roundup Ready alfalfa is planted with no restrictions. The other side has remained equally adamant in its belief that the crop is safe and its seed should be available to growers who want to plant it.
Neither group has been willing to settle for anything less than a 100% victory, nor have they budged from those hard-line stances in recent weeks, despite Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack’s plea for compromise. When USDA released the final environmental impact statement (EIS) on Roundup Ready alfalfa in December, Vilsack offered to “partner with all those who want to roll up their sleeves and work with us and each other to find commonsense solutions to today’s challenges.”
He indicated that, with compromise, a plan could be developed that would permit “co-existence between the different ways of growing crops.”
We thought both sides would embrace the offer. Intelligent people ought to be willing to discuss their differences and come up with a plan that everybody can live with. But few hard-liners on either side accepted it, and both camps criticized him for considering anything except continued regulation or full deregulation.
With little sign of compromise, the deregulation-with-restrictions option listed in the EIS, or some form of it, seemed most likely to become reality sometime after the public comment period ended on Jan. 24. It would let some growers benefit from the technology while reducing the risk of contamination for organic and conventional alfalfa growers.
The latter groups’ concerns are legitimate. Early on, conventional and Roundup Ready alfalfa seed fields were too close together, and conventional seed lots were contaminated. Later, led by the National Alfalfa and Forage Alliance, alfalfa interests developed a set of Best Management Practices for Alfalfa Seed Production. Included is a requirement that Roundup Ready and conventional seed fields be at least 900’ apart if leafcutter bees are the pollinators; three miles if pollination is done by honeybees.
More has been done to ensure good stewardship of Roundup Ready alfalfa than of any other biotech crop, but it may not be enough to prevent contamination. Roundup Ready alfalfa is the first perennial biotech crop, and its pollen is transported by bees and other insects that fly long distances. That has been the cornerstone of arguments against the crop all along.
The EIS’s deregulation-with-restrictions option, on the other hand, may go too far. If it’s adopted as presented, Roundup Ready alfalfa couldn’t be grown for forage production in counties of nine Western states where alfalfa seed is produced. Also, isolation distances of five miles would have to be maintained between Roundup Ready and conventional seed fields in those states.
An alfalfa seed company official told us that almost 50% of Western alfalfa hay acres would be affected under that scenario. “How could anybody that’s involved in the alfalfa industry be happy with a decision that would disenfranchise half of the hay growers in the Western U.S.?” he asked.
But this Roundup Ready advocate seemed willing to compromise. With a successful co-existence program, he said, “just like with any compromise, nobody’s completely happy. But it’s an end product that you can point to and say ‘this is going to get us where we all need to be.’ ”
We wish more folks on both sides of the issue were equally as flexible.