Dan Putnam disputes likelihood of Roundup Ready pollination
February 17, 2011
TULARE, CA – Producers can reduce the risk that Roundup Ready alfalfa could contaminate a conventional or organic alfalfa field despite proclamations that such contamination is likely, a forage specialist told farmers last week at the World Ag Expo.
Dan Putnam, a forage expert for the University of California-Davis (UC-Davis), said he takes issue with a headline he saw from the Associated Press suggesting that organic alfalfa is at risk of being jeopardized by USDA’s deregulation of Roundup Ready alfalfa two weeks ago.
“I don’t believe it is certain. I believe it is something we can manage and prevent,” he said. “Really, it gets back to the industry. We need to make sure that headline was wrong.”
Putnam spoke as part of a group of speakers for forage and hay seminars at the World Ag Expo. He also noted that with all the focus on organic alfalfa, people seem to miss that the U.S. has grown conventional hay exports to countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, other key markets that no one wants to see lost because of biotechnology. The conventional crop grown for export is likely more important in economic value than the organic market, he said.
Regarding USDA’s deregulation order, Putnam said, “There’s no question the lawsuits will continue. They would probably continue regardless of whichever way they went.”
The Center for Food Safety, which spearheaded the main lawsuit in the case, is raising money on its Web site for another legal challenge.
Recommended Stories For You
Roundup Ready alfalfa was deregulated by USDA in 2005 and sold on the market, but a 2007 lawsuit prompted a federal judge to issue an injunction banning the sale. Environmental and organic groups argued USDA had not done an environmental impact statement (EIS) on the crop. While USDA worked on such a statement, the court case moved to the U.S. Supreme Court last year, which ruled the judge should not have issued a blanket national injunction on the crop. The EIS, released in November, also found no significant environmental impact from the crop.
Already, license holders are selling the Monsanto Genuity alfalfa. One salesman at the World Ag Expo said he had been receiving orders for the seed since Monday. But Putnam and another forage market analyst who spoke Tuesday, Feb. 8, thought there would not be a significant planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa until the fall. Producers nationally likely will take advantage of market prices for other commodities and plant a spring crop, then go to forage in the fall, Putnam said.
But Putnam largely questions the risk involved in cross-pollinating the crops even though alfalfa requires pollen to carry to create seeds. There would be no alfalfa seed crop without the gene flow. The fear of cross-pollination in seeds largely involves about 200,000 or so acres in the country used for alfalfa seed. There are 22 million or so acres used for hay.
A 2008 study at UC-Davis measured different possible outcomes such as the potential of contaminating a hay crop of conventional alfalfa with a Roundup Ready variety of alfalfa seed crop. The study released pollinators and attempted to maximize the flow from the seed crop to the hay crop, Putnam said. Measuring the gene flow, the study determined that at 160 feet, there was about a 0.25 percent (one-fourth of 1 percent) gene flow from the seed to the hay crop. At 500 feet or farther, the contamination was even closer to zero.
Yet, a key in the study was that the hay crop was allowed to flower and go to seed in the first place, a practice almost never likely to happen on any field being harvested for hay, Putnam noted. Hay is often cut multiple times each year before flowering occurs.
Another factor is that the seeds from the pollinated hay field would have to fall and germinate in order to have a mixture of biotech seed crop and conventional hay in the same field.
“So there are a whole series of environmental screens that prevent this kind of gene flow in hay,” Putnam said.
In other words, there is a 0.25 percent risk at the edge of a field, then that risk is reduced by the need to have simultaneous flowering between the seed crop and the hay crop. It’s reduced further by the need to have a percentage of flowers that make it to seed that mature, and reduced even further by the percentage of seeds that remain in the field.
“Pretty soon, you are coming to a pretty low level of risk,” Putnam said. “Remember that if any of these steps is an absolute zero, then the whole process becomes zero.”
For a purist, the full level of risk that two neighbors could achieve such cross-pollination is still not completely zero, Putnam said. The key question, however, is whether a neighbor can continue to produce crops the way they wish to produce them. There will still be issues of pesticide drift and fertilizer effects, he said.
“So there will be neighbor effects here of divergent philosophies,” Putnam said. “The question then is whether neighbors will be able to figure these things out.”
Forage Genetics also has opted to keep a restriction preventing farmers in southern California’s Imperial Valley region from growing the crop. That’s partially because of the density of alfalfa in the region and issues such as farmers growing alfalfa seed in a field one year and converting it to hay the next.
Putnam added there was a risk if USDA had not deregulated the Roundup Ready variety that other biotech traits in the pipeline for alfalfa would have been in jeopardy. Those traits range from drought and salt tolerance to protein changes in the crop. “It’s my view that if they decided not to deregulate Roundup Ready, then essentially we are out of the biotech business for alfalfa for at least a decade if not longer,” he said.
Putnam added that every farmer will have to consider whether it’s worth the tech fee of $3 per pound of seed to grow Roundup Ready alfalfa. Some farmers are used to heavily seeding their crops with as much as 25 pounds an acre, but may have to think of a more manageable planting rate of 15 pounds an acre. Along with that, a producer has to consider how well they manage weeds in their fields now.
“If you have got a good weed-control strategy now, this might not be a good fit for you,” he said.