Don’t Panic Over Biotech Alfalfa

Farmer Gene

The Atlantic published a piece authored by James McWilliams, Associate Professor of history at Texas State University and author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.

The USDA’s recent decision to (re)deregulate genetically modified (GM) alfalfa has sent a shock wave of panic through the organic foods industry because organic farmers (who produce between .5 and 1 percent of the nation’s alfalfa) believe their product could be contaminated by gene flow from GM seed.

Dr. Dan Putnam, a forage expert at UC-Davis, explores rates of contamination based on alfalfa crop distance, types of pollinators, and adjacent systems of production (i.e., seed-to-seed, hay-to-seed, and hay-to-hay). In a 2008 study evaluating the chances of a Roundup Ready alfalfa seed crop contaminating a non-Roundup Ready hay crop (the seed-to-hay scenario), Putnam found that when the crops are a modest 160 feet apart the rate of successful gene flow from GM seed crop to non-GM hay crop was a mere 0.25 percent. (Hay-to hay, rather than seed-to-hay, is the most common situation – but the chances of contamination in that scenario appear to be even lower.)

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

There’s more. Let’s say that the non-GM hay did flower and produce seeds. Two more unlikely events would also have to happen in order for successful contamination to occur. 1) There would have to be simultaneous flowering between seed crop and hay crop in order for cross pollination between GM and non-GM to happen. And 2) If that rare coincidence took place, the seeds in the hay field contaminated with GM pollen would have to fall and germinate on-site rather than being carried afield by a puff of wind.

Purists will argue that a “low level of risk is not enough.” But seeking a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to contamination denies the reality of floral life. Pollen moves.

With a contamination possibility that’s less than 1 percent, we are not looking at a scenario in which GM alfalfa is going to overtake its organic counterpart.  I think it’s perfectly reasonable for organic alfalfa farmers to accept the extremely low chance of GM contamination as the cost of doing business in the modern world.

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