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BUSINESS & SEEDS: GE alfalfa success still uncertain despite court victory



                                  PART 1


------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:   BIOTECH ALFALFA SUCCESS STILL UNCERTAIN DESPITE COURT VICTORY

SOURCE:  St. Louis Post-Dispatch, USA

AUTHOR:  Georgina Gustin

URL:     http://www.stltoday.com/business/local/article_aadc53d9-b05e-52d6-9a45-130530e2a4a6.html

DATE:    22.02.2011

SUMMARY: "When federal regulators gave farmers the green light to plant genetically modified alfalfa, some growers of the nation?s fourth-largest crop celebrated. But others ? even those supportive of the technology ? responded to the news with mixed feelings. [...] Only about 7 percent of alfalfa growers use a herbicide to control weeds, according to the Agriculture Department, whereas most corn and soybean growers applied herbicide prior to adopting the Roundup system. That could mean fewer farmers are likely to make the switch. [...] Cost could prove a factor: The Roundup Ready alfalfa seeds are roughly twice the cost of conventional seeds."

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BIOTECH ALFALFA SUCCESS STILL UNCERTAIN DESPITE COURT VICTORY

When federal regulators gave farmers the green light to plant genetically modified alfalfa, some growers of the nation?s fourth-largest crop celebrated. But others ? even those supportive of the technology ? responded to the news with mixed feelings.

Over the past five years, the widespread planting of genetically modified alfalfa, developed by Creve Coeur-based Monsanto, has been held up by a protracted court battle that made its way last year to the U.S. Supreme Court ? the first case involving genetically engineered plants to land there.

But after the costly court battle, both sides concede that the government?s decision last month to allow genetically modified alfalfa on American farmland may not deliver a financial blockbuster.

?Where does this go in the long term?? asked Steve Welker, who heads up Monsanto?s alfalfa business. ?That?s a really good question.?

The debate over alfalfa ? the nation?s fourth-largest crop after corn, soybeans and wheat ? has simmered between predictable factions. On one side, Monsanto, the world?s largest seed company, along with the hay, or forage, industry, which, for the most part, wants the technology in its farming arsenal; on the other, conventional and organic growers worried about genetically modified crops? cross-pollinating and contaminating their own.

Monsanto and Forage Genetics International, the Minnesota-based company to which Monsanto licenses the technology, have acknowledged those concerns. Farmers in California?s Imperial Valley, the nation?s most productive alfalfa growing region, asked Monsanto to keep its genetically modified alfalfa out of the region for fear of losing access to export markets that don?t allow modified crops, and the company agreed.

?They asked us to impose a restriction, and we?ve done that,? said Forage International president Mark McCaslin. ?That?s a contractual obligation that?s part of Monsanto?s grower agreement.?

USAGE IN DOUBT

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, alfalfa is grown on roughly 20 million acres and has a value of about $9 billion a year. Most of the alfalfa goes to dairy cows or export markets.

In 2005, the department allowed unrestricted planting of the modified alfalfa, which is engineered to withstand the herbicide marketed by Monsanto as Roundup. Roundup, generically known as glyphosate, kills weeds but not the modified crops.

American farmers have widely employed the Roundup system for corn, soybeans and cotton, crediting the technology with boosting farm incomes and making Monsanto the dominant force in the business. But, farmers and agriculture experts say, the same wholesale embrace of the system for alfalfa is not as certain.

Only about 7 percent of alfalfa growers use a herbicide to control weeds, according to the Agriculture Department, whereas most corn and soybean growers applied herbicide prior to adopting the Roundup system. That could mean fewer farmers are likely to make the switch.

?There?s some awfully good alfalfa varieties out there that ? have great yield potential and bred-in resistance,? said Darrel Franson, vice president of the Missouri Forage and Grassland Council. ?There?s some awfully good seed stock already out there.?

Cost could prove a factor: The Roundup Ready alfalfa seeds are roughly twice the cost of conventional seeds.

?You hear mixed opinions,? said Nolan Kleinboecker, who grows alfalfa in Lawrence County. ?The extra price for the Roundup Ready seeds could scare some of them off.?

Mariann Holm runs an organic dairy in Elk Mound, Wis., and is worried that genetically modified alfalfa could cross-pollinate the organic alfalfa she grows to feed to her cows.

?Is there really a market for this product?? Holm asked. ?Right now alfalfa is grown without herbicide. It?s not like there?s a need for this.?

The Agriculture Department?s analysis suggests that 50 percent of alfalfa growers could switch to genetically modified seeds. Some say that?s optimistic.

?I think that?s a substantial overstatement of what?s likely,? said Charles Benbrook of the Washington-based Organic Center, which advocates for organic-friendly policies. ?I?d say 20 percent is more realistic, and that would make a threefold increase of alfalfa treated with herbicide.?

LEGAL BATTLE

After the Agriculture Department?s approval in 2005 of Roundup Ready alfalfa, a group of alfalfa growers led by the Washington-based Center for Food Safety, an organization opposed to biotech crops, challenged the department?s ruling, saying it had not performed the required environmental assessments. A federal circuit court judge agreed and banned the further planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa.

Ultimately, Monsanto and Forage Genetics took the case to the Supreme Court, which lifted the ban last year. The court said, however, that the department would have to complete an environmental impact statement.

That statement was completed in December, and last month the Agriculture Department announced it would ?deregulate? modified alfalfa, meaning farmers can grow it without any government-imposed restrictions.

While opponents of the decision say modified alfalfa may not prove to be hugely popular with farmers, the announcement came as a blow to the Center for Food Safety, which has said it plans to take the matter back to court.

The impact statement, critics point out, cites evidence of cross-contamination, and seed scientists have since said more contamination is inevitable. Alfalfa is a perennial ? it grows back every year ? and farmers can?t control when it blooms. It is also pollinated by bees, whose trajectories and flights aren?t containable.

?That makes alfalfa dangerous,? said Bill Freese, a science policy analyst for the center.

Dairy farmers, who rely in part on alfalfa to get their animals through winter, could eventually see a drop in hay prices that will help their bottom lines. But organic producers ? who have to prove the hay they feed their animals comes from organic-certified growers ? could see prices go up if organic hay becomes scarce, they say. Many grow their own organic alfalfa.

?I?d have the cost of testing the field for contamination. ? I?d have the cost of replanting the field,? said Loretta Jaus, an organic dairy farmer from Gibbon, Minn. ?Then there?s the issue of [organic] certification. If we lose that, we could lose 50 percent of our income.?

The alfalfa industry, however, points to a strict management plan and its own best practices that will, it says, control contamination. These practices, which include placing fields at strategic distances, are designed to keep contamination to 0.5 percent ? a percentage both the industry and critics say is acceptable, but may not be for some export markets.

?There are stewardship requirements, and Monsanto fully supports those,? Welker said.

Many alfalfa farmers, including those who were among the 1 percent of growers who planted Roundup Ready alfalfa before the ban, say they?re anxious to plant more.

?I think it?s a pretty good deal,? Kleinboecker said. ?I know there?s a lot of uproar about it, but it depends what side of the fence you?re on.?

Monsanto is hoping more farmers feel the way Kleinboecker does.

?Organic and conventional and biotech crops have coexisted for years now,? Welker said. ?There?s no reason to think this can?t happen with alfalfa.?

The next few spring planting seasons will give the company a sense of just how strong the market might be. But in the meantime, the cows who survive each winter on hay may have the last moo.

?Cows don?t really like alfalfa,? said Kerry Buchmayer, an organic dairy farmer from Purdin, Mo. ?If you have a bale of clover hay, a bale of grass hay and an alfalfa bale, they?ll eat the clover bale, then the grass bale, then they?ll go hungry a day before eating the alfalfa. I?ve seen it.?



                                  PART 2

------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:   CHOPPING THROUGH MCWILLIAMS? WEEDS ON GMO ALFALFA

SOURCE:  Chews Wise, USA

AUTHOR:  Bob Scowcroft

URL:     http://www.chewswise.com/chews/2011/02/chopping-through-mcwilliams-weeds-on-gmo-alfalfa.html

DATE:    18.02.2011

SUMMARY: "Years ago, I had a history professor at Reed College who [...] argued that a historian needed at least two decades remove from any event to come to any worthwhile conclusion because only then could it be understood within its wider political and economic context. Perhaps that?s why I find it curious that a historian like James McWilliams so confidently offers conclusions about the contemporary food system and does so often by looking at complex issues through such a narrow lens. [...] If the ignorant public only looked at the science, he argues, there wouldn?t be such a fuss."

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CHOPPING THROUGH MCWILLIAMS? WEEDS ON GMO ALFALFA

Years ago, I had a history professor at Reed College who thought it was fruitless to understand the historical impact of contemporary events. He argued that a historian needed at least two decades remove from any event to come to any worthwhile conclusion because only then could it be understood within its wider political and economic context. Perhaps that?s why I find it curious that a historian like James McWilliams so confidently offers conclusions about the contemporary food system and does so often by looking at complex issues through such a narrow lens.

Take his most recent piece on genetically modified (GMO) alfalfa (1), where he took me to task about the risk of potential contamination of non-GMO alfalfa. Since organic alfalfa is grown on such a small percentage of land, he argued, the risk and impact of contamination from the genetically engineered crop was slight. He supported the argument by brandishing ?the data? -- a study by a researcher which showed a small risk of cross-pollination. If the ignorant public only looked at the science, he argues, there wouldn?t be such a fuss.

But how would a historian approach this question? From a future vantage point, they would probably look at this study with interest, but then also examine the actual record of cross-contamination in the real word. Given what?s happened in the recent past, I wouldn?t be as sanguine as McWilliams.

They might find that in 2006, GMO rice spread to conventional rice farms in Louisiana and Texas (2). It wasn?t from fully deregulated plantings like GMO alfalfa, but from closely controlled GMO test plots. It led losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Taco shells were pulled from shelves in 2000 (3), because they contained unapproved genetically engineered corn meant for animal feed not humans. Genetically modified pharmaceutical corn crossed to non-pharma corn and also contaminated soybeans in 2002 (4) and the crops were destroyed.

In Canada, the market for organic canola collapsed because GMO canola crossed into organic fields (5). The market for Canadian honey exports suffered (6), because a GMO trait found in pollen collected by honey bees was not approved for human consumption in Europe. In Texas, last year, Monsanto sold mislabeled bags of GE cotton seed and it was planted in areas where it was prohibited. EPA fined the company $2.5 million (7). Also last year, researchers found that GMO canola had crossed into wild plants (8), spread in part by trucks. ?We found the highest densities of plants near agricultural fields and along major freeways,? Professor Cindy Sagers told the BBC. ?But we were also finding plants in the middle of nowhere -- and there?s a lot of nowhere in North Dakota.?

Although a study might suggest little chance of such transgressions with alfalfa, in the real world, glyphosate-tolerant alfalfa (genetically engineered to resist the herbicide glyphosate) has already spread to non-GMO fields. The USDA had to address this issue in its own court-ordered environmental impact statement (9, see Appendix V). In one section, the report states:

Following 2005-2007, the alfalfa seed production firms of Dairyland and Cal/West seeds reported a number of instances where GT (glyphosate-tolerant) transgene presence was detected in non-GT alfalfa seed production fields in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and California. In 2006, Dairyland farmers reported 11 of 16 fields contained detectable levels of GT transgene; 9 fields in Montana and single fields in each Wyoming and Idaho.

The USDA said the transgenic levels ranged from 0.2 percent to 0.9 percent, which it did not find problematic, although it would be an issue for GMO-sensitive markets. Last year, Cal/West found the GMO crop in 12 percent of 200 fields where it planted non-GMO alfalfa seed.

The historian would likely consider the decision to deregulate GE alfalfa in a political context; looking at how a massive lobbying machine was able to push through the deregulation of the seed in concert with the new emphasis in the Obama administration to be more business-friendly (10). This decision, though, proved friendly to just one business interest. (Recall that USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack had floated a measured approach of ?coexistance? (11) precisely because of concerns about the impact on non-GMO farmers.)

Then there?s the organic sector, where buyers are already refusing crop shipments due to GMO contamination, certifiers have told me. McWilliams stated this shouldn?t be a problem. ?The organic industry already allows less than 5 percent of its crops to be contaminated with synthetic pesticide drift,? he wrote. This is just flat out wrong.

According to the USDA organic regulations, a product can?t be labeled organic if it is found to have a prohibited substance (such as synthetic pesticides) at greater than 5 percent of its EPA tolerance level. What does that mean? Say the EPA allows a pesticide residue at up to 100 parts per million (ppm). If testing detects more than 5 ppm of that pesticide on an organic crop, it can?t be sold as organic. That does not mean 5 percent of your organic crop can be contaminated with synthetic pesticides. And if synthetic pesticides are found, even from drift, the farmer has to find ways to mitigate the problem or risk losing certification.

In any case, that point is irrelevant, because genetic engineering is not a ?prohibited substance? under organic regulations, where such thresholds apply. It?s a ?prohibited method.? There is no stated threshold for its presence, so it?s really not up to the organic farmer to just accept it. If organic seeds test positive for GMOs, they can?t be planted by organic farmers to feed their organic cows. That?s just the law.

But look at the issue another way. Alfalfa is the third largest commodity crop in the country, a minority of which is now grown with herbicides. The other top crops ? corn, soybeans and cotton ? have all been engineered to resist glyphosate. The result has been a rise in glyphosate use and glyphosate-resistant ?superweeds.? Alfalfa was a useful rotation in keeping that evolutionary mutation at bay. No longer. Glyphosate use will grow and superweeds will continue to evolve to resist it, until the next more powerful weed killer is rolled out. McWilliams knows this, that?s why he?s careful to state glyphosate-resistance ?presents no pest problems.? He ignores the weeds (12) that farmers are now chopping down by hand or killing with more toxic herbicides.

Of course, I don?t pretend to know how all these issues will play out, but I am fairly confident that full deregulation will mean greater risks of transgenic contamination for those who don?t want it. That is patently unfair. It would be like forcing a vegetarian to eat meat because, sorry, that?s all we?re serving these days. Or worse, not identifying the hidden meat in the dish (because GMOs aren?t labeled (13)). But by McWilliams logic, that would be ?perfectly reasonable? to accept. And he?s a vegetarian.

1) http://www.theatlantic.com/food/archive/2011/02/the-genetically-modified-alfalfa-scare-dont-panic/71337/

2) http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-10-18/bayer-settles-suits-with-texas-farmers-over-genetically-engineered-rice.html

3) http://www.organicconsumers.org/ge/kraftonge.cfm

4) http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C02EEDF113BF934A35751C1A9649C8B63

5) http://www.saskorganic.com/oapf/pdf/Arnold_Taylor_C-474.pdf

6) http://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/news/article.cfm?c_id=3&objectid=13257

7) http://www.epa.gov/compliance/resources/cases/civil/fifra/monsanto-infosht.html

8) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-10859264

9) http://www.aphis.usda.gov/biotechnology/downloads/alfalfa/gt_alfalfa _feis.pdf

10) http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703399204576108601430251740.html?mod=wsj_share_twitter

11) http://www.aphis.usda.gov/newsroom/content/2010/12/stakeholder_meeting_alfalfa.shtml

12) http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/04/business/energy-environment/04weed.html

13) http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/15/why-arent-g-m-o-foods-labeled/



                                  PART 3

------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:   THE GENETICALLY MODIFIED ALFALFA SCARE: DON?T PANIC

SOURCE:  The Atlantic, USA

AUTHOR:  James McWilliams

URL:     http://www.theatlantic.com/food/archive/2011/02/the-genetically-modified-alfalfa-scare-dont-panic/71337/

DATE:    16.02.2011

SUMMARY: "With a contamination possibility that?s less than 1 percent, we are not looking at a scenario in which GM alfalfa is going to overtake its organic counterpart. [...] In a 2008 study evaluating the chances of a Roundup Ready alfalfa seed crop contaminating a non-Roundup Ready hay crop (the seed-to-hay scenario), Putnam found that when the crops are a modest 160 feet apart the rate of successful gene flow from GM seed crop to non-GM hay crop was a mere 0.25 percent."

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THE GENETICALLY MODIFIED ALFALFA SCARE: DON?T PANIC

James McWilliams - James McWilliams is an Associate Professor of history at Texas State University, San Marcos, and author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.

The USDA?s recent decision to (re)deregulate genetically modified (GM) alfalfa has sent a shock wave of panic through the organic foods industry. Samuel Fromartz explained to Food Channel readers how ?the move has been opposed by organic farmers and consumers because of the strong possibility that genetically modified alfalfa will cross-pollinate non-GM alfalfa.? (1) In essence, organic growers (who produce between .5 and 1 percent of the nation?s alfalfa) could have their product contaminated by gene flow from genetically modified seed and, as a result, have their hard-earned organic designation undermined. Of course, this seems terribly unfair.

I?m not a big supporter of alfalfa production, be it organic or conventional or genetically modified. In an age of declining agricultural resources and rising food prices, the decision to grow a feed crop for animals that convert a relatively small percentage of it into meat strikes me as inherently wasteful. (I make this point knowing that alfalfa is a nitrogen-fixing crop, meaning that it improves soil fertility.) That said, as I encountered one condemnatory article after another regarding Tom Vilsack?s choice to deregulate GM alfalfa, I kept wondering what I often wonder when grappling with an agricultural controversy: where?s the data? Fromartz (echoing the standard line) refers to the ?strong possibility? of contamination.

With a contamination possibility that?s less than 1 percent, we are not looking at a scenario in which GM alfalfa is going to overtake its organic counterpart.

Okay. How strong?

Dr. Dan Putnam, a forage expert at UC-Davis, has extensively researched this question. His work reminds those willing to dig deeper than the topical media reports that the matter at hand is far more complicated than it seems. Putnam explores rates of contamination based on alfalfa crop distance, types of pollinators, and adjacent systems of production (i.e., seed-to-seed, hay-to-seed, and hay-to-hay). In a 2008 study (2) evaluating the chances of a Roundup Ready alfalfa seed crop contaminating a non-Roundup Ready hay crop (the seed-to-hay scenario), Putnam found that when the crops are a modest 160 feet apart the rate of successful gene flow from GM seed crop to non-GM hay crop was a mere 0.25 percent. (Hay-to hay, rather than seed-to-hay, is the most common situation?but the chances of contamination in that scenario appear to be even lower.)

Even if one-fourth of 1 percent seems too much, Putnam notes that the figure is an overstatement. In his study he purposefully allowed the non-GM hay crop to go to seed?something that must happen in order for pollinators (bees or leafcutters) to cross-pollinate from the GM seed crop. In the real agricultural world, however, a farmer growing alfalfa hay would almost never allow this to happen, thereby radically reducing the chance of contamination. Writing in The Progressive Farmer, agriculture reporter Chris Clayton (who, I must add, is one of the fairest?if lesser known? agricultural writers around) notes, ?Hay is often cut multiple times each year before flowering occurs.? So the GM seed pollen, should it wander into a neighboring field, would have nothing to grab onto.

There?s more. Let?s say that the non-GM hay did flower and produce seeds. Two more unlikely events would also have to happen in order for successful contamination to occur. 1. There would have to be simultaneous flowering between seed crop and hay crop in order for cross pollination between GM and non-GM to happen. And 2: If that rare coincidence took place, the seeds in the hay field contaminated with GM pollen would have to fall and germinate on-site rather than being carried afield by a puff of wind. There is, Putnam recently told a meeting of concerned farmers at the recent World Agriculture Expo, ?a pretty low level of risk.? (3)

Purists will argue that a ?low level of risk is not enough.? But seeking a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to contamination denies the reality of floral life. Pollen moves. To seek an absolute guarantee against contamination of any crop would be like driving a car while insisting that the manufacturer promise you?ll never be harmed. Even so, with a contamination possibility that?s less than 1 percent, we are not looking at a scenario in which GM alfalfa is going to overtake its organic counterpart.

A final and often overlooked point to consider is this: Even if the minimal odds were beaten, successful contamination did occur, and a bit of GM alfalfa were fed to a cow producing organic milk, the impact would be, for all intents and purposes, benign. The GM trait?glyphosate resistance?has been around for over a decade, it has been approved for both human and animal consumption, and it presents no pest problems. The organic industry already allows less than 5 percent of its crops to be contaminated with synthetic pesticide drift. So I think it?s perfectly reasonable for organic alfalfa farmers to accept the extremely low (not ?strong?) chance of GM contamination as the cost of doing business in the modern world.

1) http://www.theatlantic.com/food/archive/2011/02/why-you-should-care-about-genetically-modified-alfalfa/70557/

2) http://tinyurl.com/6x8uu5l

3) http://alfalfa.ucdavis.edu/2007AlfalfaConference/2007/07-96.pdf