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 acresFields five acres or more
Foundation900 feet600 feet
Registered450 feet300 feet
Certified165 feet165 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! Disclaimer: Anastasia's words are her own and views expressed do not necessarily represent the views of her employer. She is not paid to blog or conduct any social media activities. Mention of a company or product does not indicate endorsement.

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  • Holy shit! Incredible post. You really knocked this one out of the park. Great job.

  • melissa

    ok understood but there is a threat beyond science, what about human error? spraying the wrong crops?

    • Melissa, thanks for stopping by. Human error can always be a problem, but safeguards can be taken. For example, a seed certification agent has to inspect a seed production field to make sure the distances are right. In the case of pesticides, yep, there can be accidental spraying on the wrong field, especially with arial sprays. That’s a problem of pesticides, not of biotechnology.

      • Ewan R

        especially with arial sprays

        Times New Roman sprays are infact signficantly more dangerous!

    • Grower

      Human error also is going to cause the spread of this seed to fields that don’t want biotech. To think it won’t happen if these plants come into serious production is living in a fantasy.

      • Hello Grower. You might want to check out the comment thread below where Francis Thicke, a well known organic dairy farmer in Iowa, expresses a similar concern. I list multiple precautions that can be taken when nature throws a kink into the best human plans.

        If a farmer wanting to grow non-RR alfalfa doesn’t take any precautions and just does whatever and ends up with RR alfalfa in his field, to be honest, that’s her fault. I hope you’ll check out my post Coexistence takes conversation, where you’ll find an example that might just surprise you.

        • Grower

          I’ve been looking through your website. It seems it is the same kids defending biotech over and over.

          I get the image of you deciding to play baseball in the backyard of a suburban home. You decide it is the neighbors responsibility to erect netting around their house. If one of your baseballs breaks their windows, you’d remark, “to be honest, that’s her fault.”

          • Us “kids” are examining the scientific, ethical, political, social, legal, etc ramifications of biotech, plant breeding, and other aspects of agriculture. It does frequently come down to defending science because so many people are willing to throw science out the window.

            It is apparent from your baseball analogy that you didn’t bother to read Coexistence takes conversation where I clearly discussed responsibility and blame.

  • The issues of pesticides are addressed thru technology, not bc of it. Technology isn’t the problem, it’s the solution. They have now and have had for quite a while, variable rate spreaders that work as part of a progressive ag program to use gps to apply just the right amount of chemicals where it’s needed. Coupled with other best practices such as grass waterways, wind breaks, and contour farming, errant spray, over-spray, and runoff can be greatly reduced. Furthermore, biotech can help us us much less or even no pesticides at all.

  • Great post Anastasia. Thank you for the “shout out.” I shared the link to this post on my post and to several comments regarding concerns with seeds. You did a wonderful job explaining the safeguard already in place. Thanks again and good job!

  • Francis Thicke

    In a perfect world, GMO contamination of conventional alfalfa by roundup-ready alfalfa shoud be minimal. However, in the real world, extenuating circumstances happen, not infrequently. For example, for optimum production, alfalfa is harvested before pollen shed, but prolonged rainy weather can delay harvest until after the onset of pollen shed (which is exactly what happened in much of Iowa this past year), opening the door to GMO cross contamination.

    Also, although alfalfa has an autotoxicity that inhibits the germination and establishment of new alfalfa seedlings, that autotoxiciy is not 100%, and the autotoxicity is much reduced in the first year of establishment of alfalfa.

    The ideal world envisioned by the office bureaucrat or the GMO lab researcher is not realized in the real world of farming.

    Francis Thicke

    Iowa dairy farmer

    • Hi Francis, thanks for stopping by, and for providing more information about alfalfa production. In the real world, there are no 100%’s, obviously, but what I often find from the arguments made against genetic engineering based on cross-pollination worries is a demand for 100% containment of the transgenes. The only way to do that is add a couple sterilization genes (aka GURTs, Terminator genes), which is ironically something that the same people are also completely against. Don’t you think that opponents of GE are placing unrealistic demands by demanding a 0% chance of cross-pollination?

      Since you are an organic dairy farmer, I imagine that you probably have to buy some alfalfa from time to time, besides growing it yourself. I hear people say that the smallest cross-pollination with GE alfalfa will eliminate markets (overnight?) and drive the dairy farmers out of business, and the alfalfa growers, too. But it seems to me that if people still buy it, the market isn’t going anywhere. So a large part of this ‘market disappearance’ falls on the shoulders of the consumers and producers and whether they would continue to support those farmers and businesses despite a low level presence of transgenic alfalfa. (Organic standards in the US and Europe do not require 0% GE material.) So my question to you as a dairy farmer is, would you cease to purchase alfalfa for your cows from a grower that had a low level presence of GE alfalfa (below 0.9%)? Or if you discovered that some small amount of GE alfalfa was being eaten by your cows, would you sell that milk all the same, or would you do something different that would alert your customers to the small amount of GE alfalfa they ate, potentially scaring your customers away from buying your milk? (I understand the folks in Fairfield, IA are pretty actively against GE crops)

      Basically, I am wondering how you would react to these situations because a lot of this depends upon how people in the product chain react, from producer to consumer. Knowing exactly what consumers think about GE crops is essential, and most consumers do not have a strong opinion about it, even organic consumers. Check out this analysis of a Consumer’s Union poll – where the vast majority of organic consumers do not care very much (or at all) about cross-pollination from GE crops, even when you call it contamination. When I attended an organic farming conference last year, about half of the people I talked to were interested to learn more about GE, and seemed open to it. It’s pseudo-statistical, yes, but I daresay that the organic community is less opposed to GE than some of the organic thought leaders. Food for thought.

    • I’m so glad you came by to add to the conversation. I agree, that sometimes things happen and harvest does not occur when expected. I don’t know about bureaucrats or other researchers, but I think I have at least some inkling of the complexities of farming, having had field plots myself for 4 years. We don’t all stay in the lab all the time! 🙂

      There are methods that can be put into place that will help avoid cross pollination even when the unexpected happens. For the most part, farmers know what they need to do to get desired results, and farmers wanting to avoid pollen flow know what precautions they can take. If they don’t know, they can contact extension for more info (one thing I’d like the see the USDA do to help organic and conventional farmers alike is to put more funding towards extension).

      So, what are some of those precautions that can be taken? As described in this post, fields of RR and non-RR alfalfa, if 900 feet apart will only experience cross pollination at a rate of about 0.35%. If 2000 feet apart, cross pollination rate is only 0.05%. Of course, that’s not throughout the entire fields, depending on how large they are – most cross pollination will happen at the common border. A buffer of trees or hedges as well as alternative pollen sources like wildflowers along the border will help, although research needs to be done to find optimal types of flowers and size of buffer. A farmer growing multiple crops could put another crop between their alfalfa and their neighbor’s alfalfa. It could provide an alternative pollen source for wandering bees or could be uninteresting to bees, depending on what is planted.

      Some combination of distance, alternate pollen sources, and barriers of plants that aren’t attractive to bees in addition to harvesting in the time frame between budding and seed set would ensure that RR and non-RR alfalfa growing neighbors would be able to grow what they wish without having seed sprouting in their fields resulting from accidental pollinations. Will this be 100% barrier against cross pollination? Probably not. But it could be 99% or better if reasonable precautions are taken. As I described in my last post Coexistence takes conversation, these precautions aren’t all just up to the non-RR farmer, either. Both neighbors need to work together.

      • Francis Thicke

        Anastasia, your list of precautions that “can be taken” are sensical — they make good sense for an academic, but how likely are they to be used widely by farmers? We already know that recommendations for use of RR soybeans/corn and Bt corn are not being followed — with predicted results. I am having a hard time imagining farmers putting in a buffer of trees or hedges or wildflowers along their alfalfa fields — not to mention how long that would take.

        I believe a common threshold still being used for marketing organic crops is 0.1%, even though organic certification has no defined thresholds (http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE69P37V20101026). Even the cumbersome precautions you suggest might not achieve that threshold.

        Karl, I rarely buy hay, but grow my own. As you mentioned, my customers are quite opposed to GE food, so if I found it not possible to grow alfalfa that was not contaminated with RR alfalfa, I would probably try to make an alternative work. The last time I grew corn — about 10 years ago — at harvest it had detectable GE genes (over 0.1%). To avoid that in the future, I switched to feeding barley instead of corn. I could replace alfalfa with clover, but clover is not as good a crop for making hay for several reasons (though I find clover better than alfalfa for grazing). Then we have the question of what to do if barley and clovers become GE.

        Underlying the discussion on RR alfalfa is the nagging question of how necessary is RR afalfa anyway. I have grown alfalfa for about 40 years and never used a herbicide on it (including when I farmed conventionally), nor have I ever seen another farmer use a herbicide on alfalfa. Perhaps there are some climate and management systems that might benefit from the use of RR alfalfa, but is that marginal benefit worth the potential downsides?

        • I don’t think that the precautions are that academic at all. Organic farmers already know what precautions they need to take to gain certification, including whatever they need to do to prevent pesticide and pollen drift onto their crops. A buffer of trees and wildflowers (as beneficial as that might be for so many reasons) is probably unlikely for most situations. But is it that unlikely that two neighbors, one organic and one conventional, would both grow a number of different crops on their land? Each can plan their rotations such that never would there be the same crop on the border. With distance in addition to planting timing (for annuals) and harvest before seed set (for perennials) it is not too much to expect that that gene flow would be low. To me the biggest issue here is that cooperation that I talked about in my last post. None of these precautions cost more, they just take a little more planning.

          I can imagine you were frustrated when you found that 0.1% of your corn contained a transgene. But that 0.1% is a very small amount. 1 in 1000 seeds had a single copy of the transgene. I’d say it sounds like your management practices were working just fine. If you had the same rates today, you’d totally be eligible for a Non-GMO Project label if you wished. I bet that the cross pollination occurred on the edges of the field, something you would likely be able to avoid with an additional precaution such as planting some sorghum or other tall plant on the borders of your corn field (that could still be used for fodder). A variety of studies have shown that corn pollen stays near it’s source and that borders are effective – my favorite is The Flow of Maize Pollen in a Designed Field Plot from ISU researcher Peter Peterson and one of his undergrads.

          As for the usefulness of RR alfalfa – frankly I’m not sure. It seems to vary widely by location. As far as I can tell there’s no need for it in the midwest but in California they have more weeds in alfalfa problems. I’m guessing that farmers will decide if it’s worth it for them to spend more on seed. An article came out a little while ago saying that farmers in Ohio aren’t bothered with RR or Bt anymore because of the increased cost isn’t giving them much in returns due to the limited pests in that part of the country.

          • Francis Thicke

            Anastasia, I think your assumptions are completely unrealistic — that neighbors can just sit down and work it out. I may keep my fields in alfalfa for five consecutive years and then only rotate it out of alfalfa for a year or two. Where does that leave my neighbor. What if my neighbor doesn’t want to negotiate?

            When herbicides were first introduced, pesticide drift was treated as just tough luck for the person whose crop was damaged by pesticide drift. That is where we seem to be now with GE gene drift. It took quite a while before the courts and laws recognized that pesticide drift was a form of trespass, and that the source of the pesticide drift was responsible for the damage. Obviously, we haven’t recognized that logic with GE drift yet.

            • What can I say except that it is very sad to think that two farmers can’t sit down and plan together, even if they’re just doing it to avoid lawsuits. If this is the case, then what? We ban everything that could potentially affect our neighbors? We just depend on the court system to sort it all out when people suffer damages?

              Let’s say that RR alfalfa is pointless anyway, so let’s just not approve it in order to avoid that possibility of contamination. What happens if / when a trait comes on the market where the point of the trait is more clear. Say, drought tolerance or virus resistance. So we then also avoid deregulation because there’s a possibility of contamination? What about retroactively banning things that were previously approved?

              As I understand it, the source of pesticide drift is responsible but payout depends on the precautions taken by both sides of the fence to prevent that drift. I think it should be the same way for pollen. The farmer using biotech traits should have borders and the farmer who wants to avoid having biotech traits should also have borders, both should take additional precautions like timing, etc. If this needs to be codified to make farmers talk nice to each other, so be it. I was under the assumption that the threat of lawsuit was enough (and maybe just a tiny bit of responsibility) to get people to work together in most cases.

              • Francis Thicke

                It may be sad, but very realistic to imagine that two farmers cannot agree on how to contain GE gene drift. A good parallel is hog confinements. In my area a farmer made plans to build a hog CAFO in an area surrounded by houses. The neighbors got together and nicely (and repeatedly) asked the farmer not to build the CAFO in that area. The farmer built it anyway. The neighbors sued and eventually shut down the CAFO. This kind of thing repeats itself all across Iowa, only CAFOs are rarely shut down. Anastasia, I think it is very naive to think that the issue of GE gene drift is very often going to be settled amicably.

                • So what is the solution? Ban all biotech crops? What if someone doesn’t like a native trait and doesn’t want it “contaminating” their crop? Can we start banning native traits too?

                  • Francis Thicke

                    I do not know what the solution is, but it certainly is not going to work to have each organic or non-gmo farmer work out an amiable solution with her neighbor.

  • Actually, I think we need to BAN ALL ALFALFA!!1! Turns out it makes its own pesticide. I’m told its WRONG for plants to make PESTICiDES!!1!

    Plant Insecticide L-Canavanine Repels Drosophila via the Insect Orphan GPCR DmX

    {/end snark}

  • Food Hysterics react in much the same way when it comes to additives as organic people do when it comes to the threat of cross-pollination. For instance, you’d have to eat roughly 1,000 15oz cans of green beans to get the amount of BPA from the can liner to reach any sort of toxicity. Opponents say they don’t want any, regardless of how little is in there, and more importantly, regardless of the benefits.

    The benefits of RR Alfalfa is that the pesticides used become more effective, thus resulting in less pesticide use. Are biotech opponents against using less pesticides or at least using those pesticides more efficiently? The problem with their argument is, as with the Food Hysterics, their opposition has morphed into it’s own institution… it’s own religion. Bc of this, they can never be convinced and can never agree to anything biotech, no matter the benefit.

  • Not only does alfalfa make its own pesticide, they all do. Plants have made their own defense mechanisms (pesticides, if you will) since there have been plants.

    As reported by Ames, B. N., and Gold, L. S. in “The causes and prevention of cancer: Gaining perspectives on management of risk.”99.99% of the pesticides we eat are naturally present in plants to ward off insects and other predators.”

    Oh and by the way, “Half of the natural pesticides that have been tested at the MTD [maximum tolerated dose] are rodent carcinogens.”

  • André

    Great post, Anastasia.

    But let us go a little further about accidental « contaminations » and the effects of « contamination ».

    1. As regards seed production, the measures described in the post that are taken to ensure that the seed is true to variety (i.e. not « contaminated » by another variety) are supplemented by laboratory analyses to check for the absence of any anomaly. This is being done for « conventional » varieties and would of course be extended to checks to ensure that a « conventional » variety does not include GM seed.

    As regards forage production, a « contamination » would require (1) that two neighbouring stands are allowed to flower, (2) that they flower at the same time so that there can be cross-pollination, (3) that cross-pollination effectively happens and (4) that the (organic) « conventional » stand is allowed to set seed, and presumably also shatter. My little understanding of alfalfa tells me that one would only reach the shattering stage in a field that has been abandoned.

    2. So what about the effects? Well, if the sky is falling as soon as a GM pollen grain has reached a flower in the organic stand, then we can jump to Sam Vance’s conclusion (January 22, 2011 at 2:19 pm). No discussion possible.

    What if there are hybrid (« conventional » – GM) seeds in the fodder? The amount of GM in the total would be minuscule. Note that the 0.9% across-the-board threshold, which applies to DNA (as far as I understand it) in the European Union, is totally meaningless here.

    And what if there were GM plants in the field? Those plants would only differ from conventional plants by the presence of the RR gene, a piece of DNA. The plants would produce a slightly modified version of the enzyme that is targeted by the herbicide (a protein which will be digested). Since no herbicide is applied in organic farming, there would be no residues. So what the heck?

    A last point: since some weeds targeted by glyphosate have been able to develop « superweeds » we can assume that we might select a « superalfalfa » by growing and spraying alfalfa until we find a surviving plant. What would biotech opponents say, then?

    • Eric Baumholder

      André,

      You got it all right except for the percent applied by Europeans as a tolerance limit is based on the presence of DNA. That is actually not entirely correct. The tolerances apply even when the amount of transgenic DNA is zero.

      Thus, you can have soybean oil made from RR beans, with no DNA present (at all), and the oil is deemed 100 percent GMO. Which of course means that a little “adjustment” to the paper trail yields a 100 percent GM-free oil. Or even 100 percent organic, if that’s what the customer wants.

      Given the premiums Europeans pay for non-GM, this is like having a license to print money.

    • I think you make a very very good point here. What if we were talking about an identical herbicide resistance trait that was developed with breeding (probably with the help of mutagenesis) instead of biotechnology? It is certainly possible for glyphosate resistance to develop naturally – that’s exactly how we’re getting all those glyphosate resistant weeds! If one was developed by breeding and mutagenesis it would require no testing for safety of human health or environment. There would be no discussion of what would happen in the very unlikely situation of hybrid alfalfa with the gene reseeding into a field that didn’t have the gene.

      This hypothetical glyphosate resistance trait is functionally identical to the biotech glyphosate resistance trait. I can’t think of any reason to be freaked out about one and not the other! In both cases, we have the potential for increased prevalence of glyphosate resistant weeds, spread of the gene to wild relatives of the crop, etc, and one changed enzyme. If the RR alfalfa is deregulated and some fields end up with 0.9% or less presence of the gene in their fields, what real difference does it make?

  • Rob Wallbridge

    Hmm…can we dispense with the theoretics, the name-calling, and the snarkiness and discuss some real-world situations here? (Sorry if I’m dragging you out of the lab again, Anastasia!).
    First of all, cross-contamination can and does occur in the seed industry at numerous points beyond the fields where the seed crops are grown. There’s transportation, storage, cleaning, conditioning, treating, and packaging operations to consider, and all the handling that occurs between each of these steps. Research has shown GMO-contamination levels of so-called non-GMO seed to be in excess of 30% in some cases. That’s a bit more than 0.9%, isn’t it?
    Then we have the case of the Canadian flax farmers who recently lost their European market as a result of contamination from a genetically-modified flax variety that has NEVER been approved for commercial release. How do your “science-based recommendations” account for that?

    Finally, what no one seems to be talking about either is the accelerating breakdown of this technology with the proliferation of RR weeds. Millions of acres of North American crop land are now threatened by RR “superweeds” – are people really still kidding themselves that RR alfalfa is going to reduce herbicide usage and effectively control weeds over the long-term? Analysis of USDA data has already demonstrated that GM crops have INCREASED, not decreased pesticide usage. Just this month, a farm publication featured an article noting that farmers in the South have resorted to hand-weeding their fields to rid them of herbicide-resistant weeds. This is what you call scientific progress? (If you recall, RR weeds were another “highly unlikely” scenario when these crops were first released — some “experts” even called it “impossible.”)

    Why risk widespread contamination of non-GMO seedstocks and the probable destruction of some markets (and perhaps other unintended consequences) for a technology that has already proven to be unsustainable and ultimately results in the opposite of its purported benefit (reduced pesticide usage)? Explain that to me, and we’ll be getting somewhere!

    • Ewan R

      New folks new disclaimer… I’m a Monsanto employee, the views contained herein are my own and not those of Monsanto (yadda yadda) – frankly if this was my job I’d need to be paid a lot more to be doing it at 4:30AM

      Research has shown GMO-contamination levels of so-called non-GMO seed to be in excess of 30% in some cases.

      Citation needed.

      Then we have the case of the Canadian flax farmers who recently lost their European market as a result of contamination from a genetically-modified flax variety that has NEVER been approved for commercial release.

      This more highlights an issue with zero tolerance policies than with GMO spreading – it does throw up a bit of a red flag on public funded reserach though!

      Action has been taken however which shows that with the right procedures in place the issue can be resolved. (and really – Triffid? what the deuce)

      Finally, what no one seems to be talking about either is the accelerating breakdown of this technology with the proliferation of RR weeds.

      Which is hardly unexpected (if there’s any understanding of biology going on) and hardly unmanagable (utilizing a mix of herbicides)

      are people really still kidding themselves that RR alfalfa is going to reduce herbicide usage and effectively control weeds over the long-term?

      I’m not familiar with herbicides used on alfalfa at present, however I’d posit that the environmental impact of herbicide use would be reduced heavily (as is the case in all RR crops) while the quantities of actual herbicide useage may increase (as it takes more AI of glyphosate than it does of other, more toxic herbicides (the difference in AI use still leaves you with a less toxic load) – with proper management there is no reason this couldn’t be a long term solution – it won’t be a one trick pony, and I feel that if roundup never had been a one trick pony then “superweeds” would never have become the issue they are.

      Analysis of USDA data has already demonstrated that GM crops have INCREASED, not decreased pesticide usage.

      Increased abosulte lbs of AI in herbicide use, decreased environmental impact of herbicide use. Decreased lbs of AI of insecticide use (although this is debateable if you were to analyze lbs of Bt proteins I guess), decreased environmental impact of insecticide use. Story not as cut and dry as you represent it.

      Just this month, a farm publication featured an article noting that farmers in the South have resorted to hand-weeding their fields to rid them of herbicide-resistant weeds.

      Here’s a question I have asked repeatedly but never had answered – What would these farmers have done to control these weeds had RR crops never existed – why can’t this be done – a RR weed is the same (if not marginally less effective due to fitness issues caused by being RR – which I assume is the case) as a regular weed if you ain’t using glyphosate.

      Why risk widespread contamination of non-GMO seedstocks and the probable destruction of some markets (and perhaps other unintended consequences) for a technology that has already proven to be unsustainable and ultimately results in the opposite of its purported benefit (reduced pesticide usage)? Explain that to me, and we’ll be getting somewhere!

      Unsustainable in that it remains the dominant trait on the market and looks like being so for some time, unsustainable in that with proper management techniques (herbicide rotation, some extra chem apps in the season) it still remains a far simpler and more effective management technique than anything that came before it(and is still less environmentally impacting than pre-RR or extant alternative conventional weed management practices)? Nevermind that more herbicide tolerance traits are slated to come to market in the next few years – even if RR was doomed to eventually fail it will have still delivered over a decade of reduced pesticide impact and easy weed management for farmers – so lets say the next technology lasts a similar length of time (maybe add a decade for better management practices from the get-go) and the one after that works for another 20-30 years – in 3-4 traits you have weed control handled for the next century – seems relatively sustainable to me – what is kinda odd is looking at a given technology and expecting it to work forever (notwithstanding that RR would probably become viable again even if it was pulled due to weed resistance given enough time – allowing the cycle to repeat)

      To address a couple other points (as child will not go to sleep at 4:30am)

      The ideal world envisioned by the office bureaucrat or the GMO lab researcher is not realized in the real world of farming.

      and

      but I think I have at least some inkling of the complexities of farming, having had field plots myself for 4 years. We don’t all stay in the lab all the time!

      Anastasia’s point amplifies somewhat exponentially when you get into big biotech – field testing of GMOs requires a vast knowledge of both the science and the practice of farming – tens of thousands of field plots across North America, multiple farm hub locations, researchers with experience in agronomy going back decades etc etc (plus a lot of farm hub workers who are born and bred farm stock) – there is not a lack of farming experience within the industry, to suggest so ignores reality.

      • Matthew

        Ewan says:

        tens of thousands of field plots across North America, multiple farm hub locations, researchers with experience in agronomy going back decades etc etc

        Citation needed. Oh wait, that’s “proprietary information” so we should just trust you that it was tested.

        with proper management there is no reason this couldn’t be a long term solution – it won’t be a one trick pony, and I feel that if roundup never had been a one trick pony then “superweeds” would never have become the issue they are.

        Right, it’s the farmers fault for not managing their fields properly, not that the seedsmen and chem dealers (one entity or two) sold them on a package seed-herbicide solution and that a consolidated ag industry promoting an unsustainable biofuel agenda sold them on RR corn-soy rotations. Dumb farmers shouldn’t have listened to these experts (with the “decades” of experience. Got it.

        I promised myself I was done commenting on this blog, but this post – ugh.

        And Eric’s comments below – hello? – wow, I am agreeing with Eric. My family grew conventional alfalfa for 30 years in Nebraska and NEVER had a weed issue. We would rotate out and spray then, but during production – never used an herbicide. EU symposium on glyphosate recommended “reducing the use of glyphosate in perennial culture by using mulching systems to suppress weeds”. Hello?

        And Ewan, still waiting for you – or anyone on here – to respond to EU Journal of Agronomy on glyphosate impact on soil health, as well as ongoing research here in states at U of Missouri on impacts.

        Glyphosate might have been a good tool in the toolbox for conventional farmers, but glyphosate combined with GR-traits and a highly concentrated seed industry is a destructive tool that will increase the use of other herbicides, and leave farmers holding the costs in the longrun. I have sat at ASTA meetings and listened to executives talk about not getting caught holding the bill when a technology becomes obsolete and an economic and production model run their course (and I quote, “you are going to want to keep those losses at the farmgate”). I have some lovely audio recordings. Amazing what digital technology can do.

        But yes, the seed industry is filled with objective researchers, economists and data (not with bean counters looking at share prices and market penetration). We just aren’t allowed to see the data from those “tens of thousands(!?!!wow, how many alfalfa producers are there in the US? Are they all doing field plots for you?) of field plots”.

        Citation needed indeed.

        • Ewan R

          Erm, the tens of thousands of plots I mentioned are for all crops, not alfalfa (our alfalfa pipeline is relatively small)

          Right, it’s the farmers fault for not managing their fields properly, not that the seedsmen and chem dealers (one entity or two) sold them on a package seed-herbicide solution and that a consolidated ag industry promoting an unsustainable biofuel agenda sold them on RR corn-soy rotations. Dumb farmers shouldn’t have listened to these experts (with the “decades” of experience. Got it.

          Erm no, it’s more the fault of the company (imo) for not seeing the rather glaringly obvious issue that resistance could be – my comments around management are more that now we know what the issue is (and have acknowledged there is an issue in the first place) it is possible to implement management techniques which ameliorate the problem while retaining some (although clearly not all) of the benefits the RR system brings. But thanks for putting words in my mouth.

          And Eric’s comments below etc

          Highlights my apparent lack of knowledge around alfalfa – I’m planning to talk to my local alfalfa expert about this in the coming week, I’m happy to admit to being utterly wrong however based on the evidence provided by two folks with actual experience growing alfalfa – it may be that it’s all about increased 1st year productivity and not about replacing other herbicides (although my comments there were more around how RR has been used in other crops and not alfalfa specific – hopefully I can at least gain a better understanding of alfalfa following this conversation)

          On “citation needed” – if you claim research has shown something this is a perfectly fair request, no reason to get your back up so disproportionately unless the research doesn’t exist.

  • Eric Baumholder

    Ewan,

    I’m generally pro-technology, but I have a problem with the claims made for RR alfalfa. And here in Iowa, I’ve grown more than my fair share of alfalfa. And I’ve never had a problem with weeds in alfalfa.

    That’s because, to start a stand of alfalfa, oats were planted at the same time. The oats choke out the weeds, and after the oats and straw are harvested, the alfalfa basically has the field to itself the following spring. The only way weeds would appear in an alfalfa field is that the stand is basically played out beyond its usefulness and it’s time to plow things down anyway.

    I’ve never known a farmer with a problem of weeds in the alfalfa. But this is Iowa, results may vary elsewhere.

    I asked a Monsanto rep about this situation and the value of RR alfalfa. He said, it’s because you can plant alfalfa without need of a ‘nurse crop’ of oats, meaning you can harvest alfalfa the first year you plant it. Which makes for me a great deal more sense. Economically, too, because the value of oats and straw is pretty low these days and not bound to improve any time soon.

  • Patriot Henry

    “The solution to coexistence between biotech and organic isn’t running around like Chicken Little48 or crying wolf.”

    There can be no coexistence in the long term, as biotech (as it exists now and in the foreseeable future) is a branch of the state – and the state doesn’t care for small independent farmers.

    “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, ”

    No, it’s not enough to satisfy me. Nor is the possibility of trying to make the problem be the solution going to work.

    • Eric Baumholder

      A perfect example.

      It’s a well-known, undeniable, scientific fact that biotech and organic crops get along just fine.

      The trouble is with farmers, instead. And the fact that organic farmers have essentially sworn not to get along with the rest of us.

    • “The state doesn’t care for small independent farmers”

      Coulda fooled me.
      The USDA has a variety of programs to help just those farms
      http://www.nifa.usda.gov/familysmallfarms.cfm
      Then there’s the local foods initiative championed by Kathleen Merrigan, special grants for organic and transitioning farms, etc.

      If you’re not satisfied with 0.05% (1 seed in 5000, for reference one ear of corn has about 500 seeds so that’s one seed on 100 ears of corn) then you are welcome to work on demarcating a biotech free planting zone with your local government.

      This sentence doesn’t make sense, sorry. “Nor is the possibility of trying to make the problem be the solution going to work.”

  • Francis Thicke

    Interesting article on RR-resistant weeds in the Farm Journal: http://www.agweb.com/farmjournal/article/weeds_gone_wild/

    • I have a question about this. I’m not trying to be snarky or anything, I’ve been wondering about this for a while.

      Any reasonable person would agree that overuse of glyphosate has caused glyphosate resistant weeds to develop. This could have happened without glyphosate tolerant crops but of course these crops made resistant weeds more likely because the herbicide was used more frequently without rotation with other chemicals. In some places (like Ohio which I mentioned earlier) farmers are deciding that it’s not worth it to pay the premium price for seed because their weed pressures aren’t that bad – and I would be very surprised if sales of RR crops don’t decline steadily as resistant weeds become more tolerant. Ok, on to the question –

      Since use of glyphosate is not allowed in organic, why aren’t organic promoters happy about glyphosate resistant weeds? If resistance gets to a certain point then the RR trait is useless.

      • Rob Wallbridge

        Speaking only as one organic farmer, I take no pleasure in the emergence of RR weeds because I know that the “recommended” control method is simply to spray more herbicides. Who does that benefit, besides the manufacturers? There’s also no joy in seeing the suffering of other farmers, despite being able to say, “I told you so.” (But if I had a dollar for every time I was patronizingly informed that the chemistry of glyphosate made resistance “impossible”…)

        • If there was never glyphosate resistant crops, they’d be spraying those other herbicides anyway. In the end it’s like RR crops never existed, except for the years of decreased sprays of those other herbicides.

  • Matthew

    This piece and conversation as a whole focusses on organic-biotech, and as such misses the mark. It was a CONVENTIONAL seed company that engaged in the lawsuit, and it is conventional farmers and seed companies that are concerned about contamination, loss of export markets, etc.

    Chuck Noble, a conventional producer and seedsmen, shares his perspective over at Hay and Forage growers website: http://hayandforage.com/news/grower-says-rr-alfalfa-coexistence-not-possible-0118/

    While I hear a lot of lip service to biofortified not being about polarized debate, I just don’t see it. It’s always about organic being “Chicken Little” (and tell that to the hundreds of canola farmers in Canada who have NO market for their oil from contamination. Oh, but that is the fault of those Europeans with their 0.9% threshold of contamination). Crying Wolf? How about crying while they watch their farm livelihoods disappear? Contamination has happened, it has economic impact, and it has not been able to be contained by industries “best practices” of stewardship – not at 0.9% in canola. And I know many organic corn seed producers who can’t get corn seed produced with under 1% contamination – which is beyond AOSCA varietal offtype certification for phenotypic expression. But GE trait offtypes aren’t assessed in AOSCA certification. It’s all well and good to throw out numbers and for the industry to make promises. But reality has not shown them to be Pinocciho’s (please editor, insert cute little hyperlink to this myth). Why should we trust Monsanto? I mean I am not found of the paranoid perspective that this company is “evil” and in some illumanti like coven with secret leadership societies, but they do not have a good track record for keeping up with “best practice” standards if it doesn’t have immediate impact on their bottom line. Let’s start the discussion with biotech offering us an indemnity fund for compensation above hardcap LLP and independent oversight to monitor foundation non-GE seed stocks. Then we can begin to discuss the issue without so much heat.

    • Actually, my post was about RR and non-RR, not about organic and non-organic, as have been most of the comments. The methods for seed production to keep varieties separate have been developed over decades. If someone isn’t able to produce seed that doesn’t breed true then they might want to look at their methods.

      Oh, I should add that Chuck Noble’s ranty letter basically says that this situation will take care of itself. If the RR alfalfa is so pointless and everyone hates it and it is more expensive to grow, then no farmer will buy the seed.

    • “While I hear a lot of lip service to biofortified not being about polarized debate, I just don’t see it.”

      Anastasia’s post, on the other hand, was criticizing the rampant polarization going on.

      “Then we can begin to discuss the issue without so much heat.”

      Actually, you’re the one bringing most of the heat to the discussion. I know you want to have productive discussions about these issues, but your tendency to explode with such comments once a month or two doesn’t help those discussions occur.

      Perhaps you could start by explaining how such an indemnity fund would work in examples of non-GE cross-pollinating with other non-GE crops and causing economic damage such as with seedless mandarins in California, and the reverse example, where non-GE crops could contaminate GE crops and cause economic damage. If a hypoallergenic peanut is invented, approved, and grown, who is economically liable when a conventional peanut grower’s fields “contaminate” the hypoallergenic peanuts? Any principle that we formulate must work in these other cases as well, or it is one-sided.

  • Patriot Henry

    “Coulda fooled me.
    The USDA has a variety of programs to help just those farms”

    As well as a variety of policies to put them out of business. The FDA will be soon joining the fun-fest too. And of course, the IRS has always done it’s part to quash the little guy and force farmers to “get big or get out”.

    “Then there’s the local foods initiative championed by Kathleen Merrigan, special grants for organic and transitioning farms, etc. ”

    Oooh! More handouts to entice the naive and foolish and desperate to become dependent on state aid and control! What a delight!

    “This sentence doesn’t make sense, sorry.”

    I apologize. The government is the problem. It is not a solution.

    “If you’re not satisfied with 0.05% (1 seed in 5000, for reference one ear of corn has about 500 seeds so that’s one seed on 100 ears of corn) then you are welcome to work on demarcating a biotech free planting zone with your local government.”

    And force my beliefs onto others by threatening them with state violence? No thank you. That’s the way of the state and it’s corporate sectors. I prefer a free market solution which is to purchase a large enough area to avoid all possible contamination. If I have to I’ll pay my neighbors not to plant biotech. No violence or threats necessary.

    • This is not a political website. Please keep general political comments out of your comments here, or they will be removed.

  • Patriot Henry

    “This is not a political website. Please keep general political comments out of your comments here, or they will be removed.”

    Ah, right. We must always keep our ideas and our comments and our scientists neatly specialized and separate lest they begin to connect the dots. After all, context and meaning only clutter up the intellectual landscape.

    Here’s a non-political quote for you, it’s Sir Albert Howard summarizing the ideal role model for all agriculture: “Mother earth never attempts to farm without live stock; she always raises mixed crops; great pains are taken to preserve the soil and to prevent erosion; the mixed vegetable and animal wastes are converted into humus; there is no waste; the processes of growth and the processes of decay balance one another; ample provision is made to maintain large reserves of fertility; the greatest care is taken to store the rainfall; both plaints and animals are left to protect themselves against disease.”

    How do biotech and it’s petroleum based monocultures compare to that standard?

    • The problem with discussing politics is that we’ll never get anywhere. For example, some people think government funded research is very important, some think research should be left to industry. We can discuss the merits and downfalls of each, but if we start talking about the all the political baggage behind government spending and regulation of corporate monopolies then we may as well rename the site to Politico or whatever. Discussion of politics is useful in many contexts, but a single website has to have some sort of focus. I hope you understand.

      You might be surprised but I agree with that quote (well, aside from it being rather fluffy and not accurate or realistic scientifically). We do need to get some natural processes back into ag and perhaps other things as well. Monocultures and dependance on petroleum sourced inputs isn’t going to work in the long run – it’s barely working now. I would love to see more diversity of crops out there, why are we just feeding corn to animals when they could just as well eat barley (as Dr. Thicke said earlier)? Why aren’t we all eating more diversity of species every day? Diversity in the fields translates to less inputs needed and diversity on the plate translates to healthier people. I’ve written before on the need to use integrated approaches to farming – meaning using both technology when appropriate as well as more natural based methods such as rotations – to put it another way bringing a lot of organic techniques onto conventional farms. That’s the key idea behind the book Tomorrow’s Table. Having more regional (not necessarily local – the 100 miles thing is silly) has a lot of advantages too.

      The thing is, biotech is a tool that can be applied to many situations. Wouldn’t a disease resistant crop be useful in any farming system large or small, industrial or otherwise? Bt is one trait that can be used in small systems to help reduce insect damage. It’s benefits are not scale dependent. Aside from herbicide resistance traits (of which there are both biotech and bred versions), biotech does not encourage the use of more resources, in fact, depending on what trait we’re talking about, biotech can reduce inputs and protect the environment. For one case study that’s really cool and also really sad, you might be interested in learning about disease resistant papaya – Forbidden Fruit: Transgenic Papaya in Thailand.

      To be more specific to the topic of RR alfalfa, I don’t personally like the idea of herbicide tolerant crops at all, because it encourages the use of herbicides when people should be controlling their weeds with rotations and other more sustainable methods. We should also be breeding crops that can yield well even with a little weed pressure. These pristine weed free fields reduce habitat of a lot of critters, most importantly bees and other pollinators.

      Even though I don’t like them, though, I don’t think there is a good enough reason to ban them. Goods and ideas should compete in a relatively free marketplace. The ideas of sustainable farming just need to be advocated for – and not just in insulated organic farming communities. I’d like to see a push from NGOs and USDA extension to help show farmers methods that they can use to cut inputs. I’d like to see some sort of voluntary labeling system that farmers could use to help get them rewarded for their efforts (as I described here), and so on.

  • Ewan R

    Mother earth never attempts to farm without live stock; she always raises mixed crops; great pains are taken to preserve the soil and to prevent erosion; the mixed vegetable and animal wastes are converted into humus; there is no waste; the processes of growth and the processes of decay balance one another; ample provision is made to maintain large reserves of fertility; the greatest care is taken to store the rainfall; both plaints and animals are left to protect themselves against disease.”

    How about – mother nature doesn’t farm.
    Apart from ants.

    The quote is absolute tosh otherwise – gaia worship gone bonkers.

    • Mother nature doesn’t farm – the ants do it themselves :p
      I think I understand what Sir Albert Howard was trying to say, though, even if he was laying on the mother nature stuff too thick.

  • Rob Wallbridge

    Anastasia wrote:

    To be more specific to the topic of RR alfalfa, I don’t personally like the idea of herbicide tolerant crops at all, because it encourages the use of herbicides when people should be controlling their weeds with rotations and other more sustainable methods. We should also be breeding crops that can yield well even with a little weed pressure. These pristine weed free fields reduce habitat of a lot of critters, most importantly bees and other pollinators.

    Even though I don’t like them, though, I don’t think there is a good enough reason to ban them. Goods and ideas should compete in a relatively free marketplace. The ideas of sustainable farming just need to be advocated for – and not just in insulated organic farming communities. I’d like to see a push from NGOs and USDA extension to help show farmers methods that they can use to cut inputs. I’d like to see some sort of voluntary labeling system that farmers could use to help get them rewarded for their efforts (as I described here), and so on.

    I’m really torn about how to re-act to these comments. Do I feel reassured that your heart is in the right place? Alarmed at your naivete? Dismayed at my cynicism?

    Because sure, in an ideal world, all of these things would be true and they’d all be happening. Why aren’t they? Because in the real world, you cannot remove the economical and political context from the world of science. To put it bluntly, where is the economic motive for private, for-profit companies to develop crops that require fewer of the inputs they are in the business of selling? Why do you think most of the effort so far in developing biotech crops has been focused on corn, soybeans, and cotton? Because the malnourished of the world came together and declared that these should be the priorities?
    When your marketplace is controlled by a few large entities, are you operating in a “free market”? When these same entities fund the majority of the advertising in major agricultural publications, and have for at least a generation, do you have the “free” flow of information? Sustainable farming methods are not restricted to the “insulated organic farming community” due to the unwillingness or even the lack of efforts on the part of organic and sustainable farmers to share their knowledge — the more common criticism is that organic farmers are too “evangelistic” in their approach. Instead, the chemical farming lobby has consistently and systematically attempted to discredit and silence the alternative perspective.
    Let me be clear that I do not believe that any of this is a grand conspiracy theory — it’s just simply good business in a capitalist economic system where corporations enjoy all the privileges and none of the responsibilities of an individual person (OK, backing off from the political now…).
    Also let it be said that despite all the wonderful promises, biotechnology is an incredibly capital-intensive and therefore control-centralizing and profit-driven method of solving “problems” — it would be nice to see biotech used in other ways, but considering the context, it’s not likely. Now if you took the same number of dollars dumped into biotech in the past 20 years and invested that in some of the strategies you suggest above, what would the world look like?
    My point is that if you really want to see the things you say you want to see, you cannot expect the present “free marketplace” to deliver them, considering the gross imbalances in resources, motives and attitudes that have developed. You have to stop pretending that “science” or “technology” is a pure discipline that seeks “truth” or “the greater good” free from political, economic, or social contexts. Out here in the real world, things are a whole lot messier!

    • You can call me naive but I think I’m just pragmatic. I could wring my hands all day, lamenting that two branches of our government are apparently controlled by business interests and have been for a long time (at least in the case of Congress, more recently for the Supreme Court). I could complain about how this means that we can forget about legislation (or rulings) that 1) enforces or even encourages environmentally friendly practices or 2) decreases monopolies (in any industry but particularly food/seeds/ag) or 3) increases federal research into all science (but particularly ag, including seed banks and such)…. or I could help come up with solutions that accept as these things as the backdrop we have to work with, at least for the foreseeable future. Sure, I’d love to see a Congress elected that wasn’t beholden to their campaign contributors, a Congress that cared more about the issues than it does about getting re-elected. Should we do nothing until then? Because I think we’ll be waiting for a loooong time.

      We can talk all day about the political appointees in the USDA and debate which ones are more interested in companies than in farmers or consumers. But I’m much more interested in the real employees of the USDA, the agronomists, geneticists, economists, extension agents and so on. These civil servants didn’t get jobs with the USDA because they thought it would make them a lot of money. They didn’t do it for fame. They applied and stay there year after year because they believe that government funded research and education has real value, that the work they are doing is important, they want to serve the American people. We can talk about the problems that capitalism itself causes, but I’d much rather talk about how we can encourage better funding for public research and extension that will get farmers products and information that don’t necessarily have profit potential.

      As for the amount of money spent on biotech – are we to tell corporations what they can and can not spend their R&D funds on, now? That’s ok, but if that’s what you’re asking for let’s say it plainly. I’ve said for a long time that we need more publicly funded ag research including variety development just like we need publicly funded medical research for diseases that won’t turn a profit. 2) Biotech’s not actually that expensive. I’ve developed multiple varieties with different traits in my time as a grad student. Even including my salary, we’re talking $200K for two different traits. Of course, you need to add on safety and efficacy testing, field trials, but I don’t think that’s as expensive as people say. A lot of that is corporate overhead, govt can do it for a lot less (see GM papaya for an example).

      • Ewan R

        I’ve developed multiple varieties with different traits in my time as a grad student. Even including my salary, we’re talking $200K for two different traits. Of course, you need to add on safety and efficacy testing, field trials, but I don’t think that’s as expensive as people say.

        I don’t know that it’s always as expensive as they say, but I feel that with next-gen traits it may be more so rather than less so – some traits are relatively easy to get to work (and then a little hard to get to work right) – binary things like HT – either your plant dies, or it don’t and IR (which isn’t quite as binary, but there is a scale of insect killage your trait can land on and you can set an arbitrary point on this scale as your 0/1 demarkation) – virus resistance is similar – and may not even need to meet yield parity requirements – what need for yield parity when the industry is tanking and there is no other solution (unlike HT and IR where there are other solutions)

        However to look at the numbers (and I’ll have to be vague by necessity here – if I can find info on field trials in the literature I can share that, but other than very vague statements I can’t go into field trial design for obvious reasons)….

        You state you’ve developed 2 traits – I’m guessing you’ve actually achieved a proof of concept for two traits, or something similar – you’ve got stuff that works for what you want in your field trial – first batch of questions – how many locations did you test at, how many plots did you use, what controls, and how many years have you tested across, were control seed and test seed prepared identically at all points in production and storage (down to being in the same drier etc)? (Erm, if this reads a little belittling or whatever it’s not meant as such – I’m actually genuinely interested in what procedures you used along the way – been a long tiring night with a child who appears to have switched day for night and that wording is the best I can do (first draft would have warranted a punch in the mouth just for reference!) – same applies below, although maybe with less drafting)

        To give a vague idea glyphosate tolerant soy beans were tested at 3 locs and 4 treatments – this is not a particularly large trial, but works for proof of co)ncept of a binary trait like HT – not so much for anything more than getting a vague idea on a gene that increases yield – essentially to get out of a phase 1 type activity a gene will have been tested for a minimum of 3 years, in increasingly large field experiments each year (for the sake of arguement, and not reflective of the truth at all, lets say 1st year you do 3 locations with a single rep, next year 6 locations with 2 reps and finally 12 locations with 3 reps) – the costs soon mount – one researcher can no more run a 12 loc 3 rep trial than they can eat their own head – fields require a high level of agronomic care, data requires fast and correct statistical analysis (ie a dedicated statistician, not a researcher using SAS to get a first look at results) – top of the line equipment is required to ensure accuracy in measuring yield, IT systems have to be in place to bring the data together quickly.

        And that’s not all you do for a phase I trait – you have to do at least some work to elucidate or prove how your gene is working and what it’s doing to the plant – I’ve run the logistics for experiments on a single gene (single experiments) which come close to your $200k mark.

        Once a gene hits phase 2 it gets more complicated – more locations, multiple germplasms, multiple events, proving that all you’ve got is your gene and nothing else (it’s no use to have a gene that gives great yield increases if its genome is smattered with vector backbone), developing assays, fleshing out your mode of action to a level that regulatory don’t laugh in your face at it.

        And after that it gets expensive, because it has to get regulatory approval while at the same time running through ever more field trials, greenhouse and growth chamber trials and being tested in even more germplasm. To give an idea of regulatory costs – Japan requires that material to be shipped to Japan be tested in Japan, and grown there – and to grow it there you need to first do a small study to show that you can grow it there without disasterous results, then you have to do the large scale study plus all regulatory testing associated – $200k isn’t going to cover the cost of having a secure working research field in Japan for 2 years + associated workers and whatnot, nevermind the testing that needs to be done – and if you don’t get Japanese regulatory approval for a major row crop – forget about it, you don’t have a viable product (Japan comes to mind because Japan is what gives folk working in regulatory the biggest headache – if you can get approval there it would require a major, major fudging of the paperwork, or assault on a USDA employee or such to not get it elsewhere – they’re (at this time) the gold standard for regulatory approval

        • Yeah, yeah, I shouldn’t make generalizations 😛

          Some traits are more expensive than others. Overexpression of a known gene and RNAi traits are definitely going to be easier to develop than a totally novel trait.

          You mention all the field trials – I just wanted to point out that those would have to be done for any new variety so that’s not an additional expense per se, especially if the trait is backcrossed into a line that’s already been trialled.

          But yes, all the regulatory shenanigans, there’s no denying that.

    • I should add that perhaps in some places organic farmers are too evangelical for some people’s tastes but when I’ve seen organic “evangelism”, it’s been in the form of calls (sometimes demands) for all organic or nothing. What I haven’t seen (except for the notable exception of Dr. Thicke) is a benefits analysis approach to incentivize farmers to look into ways to reduce inputs (costs) while maximizing yields and things that contribute to yields like ecosystem services.

      Rodale, for example, has a web based program to help farmers transition to organic. That’s all nice and everything but was it 1% of all US cropland that was organic last year? If that’s increased to 1.5% what is the environmental benefit? What would be the impact if 10% of all cropland switched one method to a more environmentally friendly one? I’m just saying that if NGOs actually cared about getting more sustainable methods out there then they should figure out that changing all of ag (even in baby steps) will have a MUCH greater impact than promoting organic. Customer demand (and the increased price) drives organic but there’s no increased price payoff for switching out methods on non-organic farms. Outreach and education (especially if realistic and cost based) could go a long way to convince at least some farmers it was worth it to try something new. Will that outreach be able to compete with chemical companies? Yes, if data presented is sound and includes cost analysis. From what I’ve seen from farmers on Twitter and the few I know in real life, it is not unrealistic to say that farmers will gladly try new things if presented with good evidence for them. Sorry if that was a little rambly – time for sleep.

  • Francis Thicke

    I have had a question floating in mind for some time, and have been looking for an appropriate forum to ask it of GE advocates. Maybe you have beaten this question to death already, but I haven’t seen it. Here is the question:

    Do you think there are unanswered questions about the health effects of GE foods? I have heard GE critiques frequently contend that there have been very few feeding trials on the health effects of GE foods, and that in the feeding trials that have been done, the results have raised questions about the safety of GE foods.

    For starters, what is your opinion on the case of Arpad Pusztai and the results of his GE potato feeding trials that abruptly got him fired. Has anyone ever replicated his experiment?

    • Thank you for the question, Dr. Thicke. This is actually a subject that hasn’t been discussed in great detail here, but it’s definitely something that should be discussed. Since this post is on a different subject, would it be ok if I made a new post with your question? That way we’ll have plenty of room and can hopefully address the topic with the care it deserves.

      • Francis Thicke

        Good idea.

      • I was going to suggest putting the question in the forum – maybe that would be a better place?

        • I was originally thinking forum too, Karl. It’d be nice to see some traffic in there. But I think there are some advantages of making it a post. For one, a post comment has easy formatting (bold, blockquote, etc) and the ability to post links. Second, we still haven’t gotten the problem of paragraph breaks fixed in the forum. Third, there’s no threaded comments in the forum. For a conversation such as this, I really think a post would be best. If it’s ok with you, I’ll get one up in the next few hours.

  • Scott Smith

    This reminds me of the drug king pin instructing their dealers on how best to distribute their goodies to kids. “Are you a farmer who wants to ensure alfalfa doesn’t cross pollinate with #GMO? Get some ideas here” …Ensuring your crops don’t cross-pollinate with GMO?! Ironic that the entire market NOW must defend themselves from this patented and USDA-approved transgenic mutation. Are these suggestions so they can preserve their organic status or to avoid those PITA calls from Monsanto’s legal team? Monsanto gets approval and everyone else must gird themselves to prevent the adventitious presence assault.

    • I very clearly discussed in Coexistence takes conversation that it is the responsibility of both parties to ensure that a person’s “property” stays on their land, even if that property is pollen. Being able to blame your neighbor 100% for whatever bad things happen on your land that could be construed as their fault is risky business. What about conventional farmers that have increased weed problems due to organic neighbors? Can they sue for the weed seeds blowing over the property line? What about those seedless mandarin orange farmers? Can they sue their beekeeper neighbors for letting the bees pollinate the oranges and creating seeds? Let’s at least attempt to be realistic here. Dialing down the rhetoric a bit would be nice as well, but that’s probably too much to hope for.

      If a farmer growing non-RR alfalfa has some accidental pollination with RR alfalfa pollen (perhaps in a situation like Dr. Thicke discusses where farmers weren’t able to harvest until after flowering due to rain) then they will have zero problems with Monsanto. Even if Monsanto wrongfully accuses them for whatever reason, then they can fight in court and show they didn’t willfully break the law and probably get court costs paid by Monsanto. However, if the non-RR farmer purposefully sprays her field with Roundup and then saves the seeds, they are breaking the law ala Percy Schmeiser.

      • Rob Wallbridge

        Anastasia writes:

        If a farmer growing non-RR alfalfa has some accidental pollination with RR alfalfa pollen (perhaps in a situation like Dr. Thicke discusses where farmers weren’t able to harvest until after flowering due to rain) then they will have zero problems with Monsanto. Even if Monsanto wrongfully accuses them for whatever reason, then they can fight in court and show they didn’t willfully break the law and probably get court costs paid by Monsanto.

        That’s one of the most outlandish claims I’ve seen yet! Please, cite me the cases, even just one will do, where a farmer has taken Monsanto to court and won a judgement in their favour for wrongful accusation. Do you have any concept of the number of farmers and seed cleaners who have been forced to pay Monsanto at the mere mention of contamination? Probably not, because most also sign non-disclosure agreements! Do you really think farmers and Monsanto operate on a level playing field when it comes to legal litigation? I’m sorry but comments like this and your “it’s just like RR never existed” (tell that to former canola exporters) display either an extremely limited education, or deliberately wilful ignorance. Open your eyes, Ms. Bodnar!

        • I do know that the examples trumpeted by anti-GMO people are Percy Schmeiser who sprayed his fields to select for the RR trait and Moe Parr who encouraged farmers to illegally save seeds with patented traits. I am 100% sure there are mistakes and over-zealous Monsanto lawyers but I have yet to see examples of people who have been accused and pursued that did not break the law.

          I believe that that what I described is the way it is supposed to work and I haven’t seen proof otherwise – although I fully acknowledge that I might just not be looking in the right places. There are about 2 million farms in the US and a great deal of US commodity crops carry patented traits. If the wrongful lawsuits are as common as people say, then wouldn’t we have more examples? You’d think more farmers would break their NDAs. If there is a systemic problem of false accusations, at least some of the farmers who have been wrongfully accused would have gone to court rather than settle and at least some of them would have won. You’d think there would be far more court cases. Maybe all judges are corrupt and Monsanto bribes them all, but I haven’t seen evidence of that, either.

          Now, all that said, that doesn’t mean that I’m a Monsanto fan girl or anything. I just don’t like giant corporations very much at all, although I don’t think they’re “evil” or anything like that. I’m also not that excited about the idea of trait patents, although I’m not sure how else companies can recoup on their investment. I’d much rather see public research that is released without patents, but I don’t know how that can happen without more tax payer dollars. Anyway, I’m just going with the information I have.

          My education is in genetics, specifically corn genetics, and only a subset of that. Yep, it’s limited to one subject area just like most PhD programs are. I’ve done my best to take courses in other subject areas – ethics, statistics, sustainable agriculture, economics, public policy – and my prior experiences in food safety and public health help a bit – but one person only has so much time. So, please educate me. Show me examples of the systemic corruption, of the completely innocent farmers that have been wronged. I would like to learn about it and maybe one day help to do something about it.

          As for canola, I haven’t researched the specific biology of its reproduction habits, wild relatives, etc. From what I do know, I’m not sure if it was a good idea to deregulate it simply because there are so many other species that canola is sexually compatible with. It’s sort of, I don’t know, I suppose sad is the word, that misinformation spread by NGOs in Europe had a negative effect on farmers in Canada. There’s nothing inherently dangerous about the RR trait, it’s all a perceived problem. Still, as I hope you can tell from this post and others, I firmly support a farmer’s right to grow what she wants and a consumer’s right to eat what he wants, even if I think they’re irrational. I also firmly support science based policies – and sound science might have indicated that GE canola shouldn’t have been released – I don’t know.

          what you know

          • Francis Thicke

            Anastasia,

            I find it interesting that you are suggesting that RR canola should not have been deregulated. In a post above, you indicated that not deregulating a GE crop would set a bad precedent: “Let’s say that RR alfalfa is pointless anyway, so let’s just not approve it in order to avoid that possibility of contamination. What happens if / when a trait comes on the market where the point of the trait is more clear. Say, drought tolerance or virus resistance. So we then also avoid deregulation because there’s a possibility of contamination? What about retroactively banning things that were previously approved?”

            Would not deregulating RR canola have set a bad precedent?

            • I think that each individual gene/event/crop combination needs to be evaluated separately. One of the main charges of the USDA is to evaluate a crop under consideration for deregulation for pest status. Does the trait make the crop more likely to become a weed? In the case of canola, perhaps the answer is yes. As far as I know (again, I have very little knowledge of canola), canola is a weed in lots of places, it grows in roadside ditches where glyphosate is often used to control weeds. Adding glyphosate resistance to crop canola that grows near weedy canola (indeed, weed canola is often just crop canola in the wrong place, as far as I know) means a very likely (and now confirmed) spread of the trait to weed canola, which makes controlling the weed more difficult. In the case of alfalfa, while there are wild alfalfa plants, I don’t think it is a weed as canola can be. The glyphosate resistance trait would not make alfalfa more of a plant pest than it was before, assuming that it is properly managed.

              What I meant when I said not approving would set a bad precedent was that not approving a plant simply because cross pollination could occur (as I said previously “in order to avoid that possibility of contamination”) would set a bad precedent, especially given the various methods farmers can use to avoid crops pollination. I did not mean that not deregulating anything would set a bad precedent. Again, each gene/event/crop combination needs to be evaluated separately.

              • I just attended a talk by Allison Snow today, and she talked a little bit about canola. Yes, it can be weedy in that it will plant itself, grow in the wild, and the wild ancestor grows in North America, however, the populations of canola that sprout from farmed plants are short-lived. They come and go from one seed spill or another. There was a recent paper about GE canola showing up on roadsides, and at intersections, and it seemed to indicate canola’s tendency to pop up wherever the seeds are dumped. In the popular discussion of this news, the impression was that there was something special about GE canola that made it spread across the land, which is not what the research indicated. If you have a weedy population of canola, and you are trying to control it with an herbicide such as glyphosate, obviously the herbicide tolerance would matter. But otherwise, it’s the same old rapeseed.

                Canola is an interesting example, as there is an herbicide-tolerant variety of canola called Clearfield, which was generated by mutagenesis and not genetic engineering. If herbicide tolerance is an issue then we need to consider herbicide tolerance as a class of traits and not the process by which it was generated.

                • Ah, it seems I may have been swept away by some of the media coverage of that paper that may have indicated weed canola is a bigger problem than it really is. I look forward to your coverage of Dr. Snow’s lecture, if you have time to write up a post, that is.

                  I am really interested in what people think about non-genetically engineered herbicide resistance traits.

  • Ewan R

    Ensuring your crops don’t cross-pollinate with GMO?!

    Which is different from ensuring your crop doesn’t pollinate with other varieties how precisely?

    Keep in mind this wasn’t about contamination of regular crops – which as discussed are highly unlikely to be contaminated with the transgene (Alfalfa generally isn’t allowed to flower, and certainly not set seed – you harvest before nutrient remobilization) – but about contamination amongst seed producers (the same issue as was raised with sugar beets) which is made an issue because of the rules organic imposes rather than for any scientifically valid reasoning (what other industry would allow essentially self imposed rules of 1% to dictate the production of the other 99%? Perhaps Muslims should demand all meat be Halal (I can’t imagine that non-halal is never sold as halal due to mistakes) or something similar to see exactly how far that goes. (I mean seriously, what is the rationale behind GM not being acceptable in organics – pesticides and fertilizers at least have valid reasons – it’s purely circular GM isn’t allowed in organic simply because GM isn’t allowed in oranic)

    I’m not exactly sure how this equates to a drug king pin instructing dealers how to sell to kids, unless perhaps you’re insinuating that farmers shouldn’t be considered full legal adults, or that perhaps they’re stupid – perhaps you could elaborate?

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  • Ewel G

    http://player

    title=0&byline=0&portrait=0&autoplay=1

    Would appreciate your comments regarding the information contained in the included URL video by Prof. Don Huber @ Purdue about the pathogen found in glyphosate controlled soils and Roundup Ready corn and soybean feeds which has made its way into the livestock food chain, which is negatively impacting livestock fertility and propagation in several Midwestern locations.
    Thx.

  • Tim Bernowski

    Check out Monsanto in the encyclopedia– What they are responsible for–creating agent orange,PCB,DDT, Paid damages for many of the largest illegal dumping of toxic waste. Wake up! They have a great deal of money and will go after anyone in their way. Watch the above video. I think mother nature does the best job!

    • Fallacy for the day: Argumentum Ad Monsantum.

      • Ewan R

        With a side helping of the naturalistic fallacy.

        Also it was the US government who “created” agent orange, so you may want to invest in a better encyclopedia.