By the time this column is published the long awaited draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for RR alfalfa may have already been announced. The most recent due date is mid-September and barring another lawsuit or some other glitch, seed should be available next spring.

The EIS draft proposal comes with a public comment period of at least 60 days and it will be interesting (and no doubt annoying) to see what the opposition has to offer. We got an early dose of the hysteria that the anti-biotech crowd drummed up when the comment period opened to the public before RR alfalfa was deregulated in 2005. We got a call that was cordial until someone else came to the phone. He became more and more agitated as he claimed that there was a disaster in a Third World country involving a crop other than alfalfa. We hung up as soon as possible to keep him from going into cardiac arrest.

The need for genetically modified alfalfa was reinforced by two articles in the March issue of Hay & Forage Grower, a national magazine. A University of Minnesota forage agronomist voiced concerns “about the future of alfalfa” in his state. Acreage is dwindling and the average yield hasn’t improved in the past 10 years. It’s a development that isn’t unique to Minnesota and the forage specialist posed this question: “Without genetic engineering will we lose alfalfa from our landscapes?”

Another article that got our attention in Hay & Forage Grower was titled, “Alfalfa: Queen of Biomass, Too?” Researchers in Wisconsin and Minnesota are working on biomass alfalfa and the project includes harvesting equipment developed that strips leaves and places stems in windrows. A USDA-ARS geneticist is developing a thick-stemmed variety with other important traits to improve ethanol production from alfalfa.

There are other important benefits biotech can offer and growers and other industry members can help get RR alfalfa back on track. While there are no guarantees, you can make your voice heard when the public comment period opens. In anticipation of the upcoming EIS draft, industry sources are encouraging growers and others involved with alfalfa to respond during the comment period. The draft EIS will be posted and comments can be made at www.regulations.gov.

The company that developed RR alfalfa seed, Forage Genetics, has established a Web site to keep interested parties informed on developments and how to comment. The site has listed talking points on the benefits of biotech alfalfa. They include dependable, cost-effective weed control; consistent, high quality weed-free hay; improved production efficiencies; increased dollar value for each ton of hay sold; improved environmental characteristics; and improved worker handling safety.

The UC Alfalfa Workgroup’s Web site, www.alfalfa.ucdavis.edu, has in-depth information on the subject in its “Biotechnology and Roundup Ready Alfalfa” section. The list of articles on the subject includes, “Methods to Enable Coexistence of Diverse Production Systems Involving Genetically Engineered Alfalfa.” A new UCANR publication is titled, “Avoiding Weed Shifts and Weed Resistance in Roundup Ready Alfalfa Systems.”