Roundup Ready (RR) alfalfa is gaining grower interest in the central and northern growing regions in California yet fields to the south in the Imperial Valley continue void of the genetically-engineered crop.

“We’ve had a fairly high level of Roundup Ready adaptation in many parts of the San Joaquin Valley and the Sacramento Valley,” said Dan Putnam, University of California, Davis statewide forage specialist. “The interest is higher to the north including the Delta region where considerably more weed pressure exists due to higher rainfall and the ecology of the area.”

RR alfalfa was first cleared for commercial production by the USDA in June 2005, taken off the market in 2007, and then re-released this January. Yet the technology has received a cold shoulder from day one in the Imperial Valley.

The issue is not that growers are anti-technology. They fear that possible gene flow from RR alfalfa fields into conventional alfalfa fields for hay and seed production could threaten important export markets.

“Some Imperial Valley alfalfa growers don’t want Roundup Ready alfalfa,” said Eric Natwick, University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) farm advisor, Imperial County. “They don’t want the risk of possible gene flow associated with GMO crops. They don’t want to risk the possibility of losing their markets.”

An estimated one-third of Imperial Valley-grown alfalfa hay and more than one-half of the alfalfa seed (all conventional) is exported. Major destinations include Europe, China, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Japan which oppose GMO crops.

If a GMO is found in Imperial Valley hay or seed shipments, the fear is a country will reduce or halt imports from the valley.

“The issue is the marketability of the product,” Putnam said. “In the Imperial Valley, the hay and seed market is export driven with non-GMO expectations which creates sensitivity. Growers should be allowed to meet requests with or without GMOs based on particular market requirements.”

California is the nation’s top all-hay production leader with about 1.5 million acres grown in 2009 valued at about $865 million, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. This represents about 6 percent of U.S. production.

Imperial County ranks first in California in all-hay production followed by Kern, Tulare, Fresno and Merced counties. In 2009, Imperial Valley alfalfa acreage included 113,000 acres of baled hay and about 33,000 acres of certified and non-certified seed production for a combined value of about $130 million.

Putnam says the Imperial Valley is the largest alfalfa seed production area by volume in the U.S.

Roundup Ready alfalfa was removed from the market in 2007 following a U.S. court ruling. The controversial decision followed a lawsuit by the Center for Food Safety which said USDA-APHIS failed to complete an environmental impact statement (EIS). The agency completed the EIS last December. USDA fully deregulated RR alfalfa without restrictions in January.

Roundup Ready alfalfa plantings are largely prohibited in the valley due to the Imperial Valley Use Agreement which sets restrictions for the GE crop. The agreement was established by those concerned about export markets. Contracts with seed companies dictate how the agreement is enforced.