What the heck is alfalfa, anyway?

Alfalfa by TwoWings via Wikimedia Commons.

Alfalfa is an awesome plant that is quite unique among field crops. It’s a legume, which means it can fix nitrogen (meaning less nitrogen fertilizer needs to be added) as well as being one of very few perennial crops, which means it can be left in the field to grow year after year and keep being harvested. It’s roots can grow quite deep so it can be very drought tolerant. It produces a high quality forage for animals, and is especially great for dairy cows.

One problem with alfalfa is that, as it is left to grow for multiple years, weeds can accumulate and the alfalfa stand will need to be plowed under. Weeds can be controlled to some degree with harvesting at just the right time (before the weeds make seeds) but at some point that isn’t enough. Enter Roundup Ready alfalfa which can be sprayed with the herbicide glyphosate to control weeds while leaving the alfalfa healthy. It allows farmers to leave their alfalfa stands standing longer.

The sky is falling… ok, not really

Groups like Food Democracy Now are urging people to sign petitions against the deregulation of RR alfalfa, claiming it will “fundamentally undermine the entire organic industry overnight” (emphasis theirs).

These petitions are being promoted by some pretty heavy hitters, including Michael Pollan. He tweeted:

Time to weigh in: the USDA is about to rule on GMO alfalfa, a serious threat to organic dairy. [with a link to the petition]

All hyperbole aside, is Roundup Ready alfalfa really such a threat? Does it really have the potential to destroy all that is organic in one fell swoop?

The truth is, no, it’s not and no it can’t. There are some specific facts about the way alfalfa is grown and harvested that actually mean that organic alfalfa production won’t be affected at all, and other organic crops certainly won’t be affected (because they aren’t sexually compatible with alfalfa anyway!).

Jeff Fowle is a farmer and rancher in California who has been growing alfalfa for 30 years. Here’s what he has to say about it:

For those throwing out arguments against GMO alfalfa, it is very apparent that they have no understanding of the production of the forage. Here are two major points about alfalfa that need to be understood.

First, alfalfa is harvested multiple times each year, called a “cutting.” Depending on the region it is grown, a farmer can get anywhere from two cuttings in the far north, to twelve cuttings in areas of southern California and Arizona. Alfalfa is cut at the point when its total digestible nutrient (TDN) is at its highest, which occurs at a point when the plant is just starting to “bud,” or develop its flower. If alfalfa is cut when it has reached full maturity, it has poor feed value, is extremely course, does not retain leaf and is good for little more than bedding.

Second, depending on the region, an alfalfa stand remains productive, yielding at least six tons per acre, per year, for six to eight years and is then rotated out or inter-seeded with grass to maintain forage yield, orchard grass is common in our area. It is not inter-seeded with alfalfa, because by the second year, alfalfa plants release a natural inhibitor in the soil that prevents new alfalfa plants from establishing. It is for this reason that either grass is inter-seeded or the stand is plowed under and rotated to another crop for at least a year.

There’s more alfalfa goodness in his post Roundup Ready Alfalfa, Understanding Practices. I hope you’ll check it out!

Seed production has special challenges even without biotech

Now, that doesn’t mean that RR alfalfa doesn’t have any complications at all. As with many biotech crops, seed production is where people must take care.  A non-biotech seed production field must be isolated from a biotech seed production field and vice versa. And two non-biotech seed production fields of different varieties must be isolated from each other as well. This is because fields that aren’t isolated from each other will cross pollinate and the resulting seed won’t be “pure”, meaning it won’t all be of the variety that the seed producer wants and will not be able to be sold for as high of a price.

There are already very strict regulations on how seed is produced, including alfalfa seed. For example, check out the General rules for seed certification of the state of Washington. The rules ensure that seed is pure, free of genes from other varieties and free of weed seed.

Land requirements for the production of alfalfa seed crop are as follows:

  1. Prior to stand establishment an alfalfa seed crop of the same kind must not have been grown or planted on the land for four years for the production of foundation or registered class or one year for the production of certified class; except two years must elapse between the destruction of dissimilar varieties, which are varieties that differ by more than four or more points on a dormancy rating scale as reported by the National Alfalfa Variety Review board.
  2. Reseeding of an alfalfa seed field due to failure or partial failure of the first seeding may be done by referring to the guidelines in WAC 16-302-045(5).
  3. Ditchbanks, roadways, etc. adjacent to a certified alfalfa seed field must be free of volunteer alfalfa and prohibited noxious weeds.
  4. Volunteer alfalfa plants in the alfalfa seed field may be cause for rejection or reclassification of a seed field.
  5. No manure or other contaminating materials may be applied during the establishment and production period of the alfalfa seed stand.

Isolation requirements for the production of alfalfa seed crop are as follows:

Alfalfa seed crop for certification must be isolated from all other alfalfa varieties or fields of the same variety not meeting varietal purity requirements for certification as follows:

Fields less than five acres Fields five acres or more
Foundation 900 feet 600 feet
Registered 450 feet 300 feet
Certified 165 feet 165 feet

Remember, all of these special land and isolation requirements have nothing to do with biotech, they exist to keep one variety of alfalfa from contaminating another. The requirements have been tested and shown to provide ample protection for  a seed production field. The same methods would have to be used if RR alfalfa was deregulated by the USDA, but it may be appropriate for longer distances to be required if research showed that pollen could travel greater than 900 feet. In fact, there have been quite a few experiments done to see if additional precautions are needed for biotech alfalfa compared to non-biotech. And the result is that yes, some additional precautions probably need to be taken.

How much distance is enough?

USDA Agricultural Research Service plant geneticist Daniel Z. Skinner in Washington state and Kansas State University alfalfa breeder Paul St. Amand worked together on a 3-year biorisk assessment study way back in 2001. The goal of the study was to make sure “that problems don’t arise from the accidental dispersion of transgenic alfalfa pollen to wild populations of alfalfa.” They found that bees can carry alfalfa pollen at least 2/3 of a mile.

The researchers recommend that producers consider changing their seed-production practices. They suggest placing bee colonies in the center of the alfalfa field instead of along the side and surrounding the field with flowering crops like birdsfoot trefoil or sainfoin so that bees would become covered with other pollen and no longer transmit alfalfa pollen if they leave the field. These practices are expected to limit pollen dispersal, but Skinner cautions that more testing will have to be done.

Another study from 2001 by researchers from Forage Genetics found that a distance of 2000 feet (0.38 miles) reduced transgene flow to 0.05% which is far under the 0.9% required by the Non-GMO Project and the European Union. In fact, the 900 feet required under current foundation seed guidelines reduced gene flow to 0.34%, also well under the 0.9% guideline, as shown in this graph.

Other studies have found that pollen traveled greater distances, up to 1.7 miles – the distance likely varies widely by location and climate so recommendations that don’t take location into account (like the blanket rules proposed by Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack) could lead to distances that were either too great or too small.

These recommendations, combined with other science-based recommendations about seed production can be used to ensure that the transgene in biotech alfalfa won’t be found in non-biotech alfalfa or in wild alfalfas.

If that 0.05% isn’t enough to satisfy, there always exists the possibility that non-biotech alfalfa seed production areas can be designated by local or state governments, similar to the ban on canola (biotech or not) in Oregon to protect seed production of sexually compatible crops like broccoli as I described in Sugar beet biology (in the section Distance as mitigation strategy).

The solution to coexistence between biotech and organic isn’t running around like Chicken Little or crying wolf. The solution lays, as usual, in sound science guiding seed producers and farmers to make sound decisions.

For further reading on alfalfa and transgene flow, including specific discussion of what Monsanto and Forage Genetics are working on to avoid gene flow, see Seed production issues for genetically enhanced alfalfa (2004) by Shannon Mueller, University of California Cooperative Extension. Also see the Environmental Impact Statement (2010) the USDA conducted on RR alfalfa as well as other USDA documents on the subject.

Follow Anastasia Bodnar:
Anastasia is Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. and the Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. She has a PhD in genetics with a minor in sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Her favorite produce is artichokes!