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.

Genuity stewardship

Monsanto and Forage Genetics International (FGI) resumed sales of Genuity RR alfalfa this spring. Due to the unique alfalfa production practices in the Imperial Valley, Monsanto Stewardship Lead Robert Nixon says farmers in the valley who plant the technology agree to additional stewardship of the technology.

Previously those commitments included: producing forage only - not seed or sprouts; maintaining a minimum 1-mile isolation area between Genuity RR alfalfa and any conventional alfalfa field used for forage or seed production; and to register the location of each Genuity RR alfalfa field with the California Crop Improvement Association.

“FGI and Monsanto are in discussions with Imperial County alfalfa growers to determine if these stewardship requirements are sufficient for their unique hay and seed production practices, particularly in light of the unexpected and rapid expansion of hay exports from the Imperial Valley to China,” Nixon said.

All Genuity RR alfalfa growers must have a valid Monsanto technology-stewardship agreement and follow the crop stewardship requirements in the current technology use guide including any addenda, Nixon said. 

The Emanuelli family has grown a wide range of crops in Brawley in the Imperial Valley for almost 100 years including alfalfa, Bermudagrass, barley, flax, canola, sugarbeets, onion, vegetables and citrus. Today, the J. Emanuelli and Sons farm includes 3,500 acres, with 2,000 acres of alfalfa.

Scott Emanuelli, 28, is the fourth generation and manages Top Notch Seed, Inc., started by the family in 2007. The onsite seed mill conditions and grades alfalfa seed. Emanuelli contracts seed production with proprietary genetics from Cal/West Seeds, Pioneer, Forage Genetics, S&W Seeds, and Dairyland Seed.

About 90 percent of the proprietary seed grown is for export, Emanuelli says. About 80 percent of the seed and 30 percent to 40 percent of the hay grown by the Emanuelli family are exported.

Emanuelli does not grow RR alfalfa. He is concerned about potential GE alfalfa production in the Imperial Valley. Emanuelli’s concerns are strictly about the economic situation exclusive to the Imperial Valley; not against technology.

“There are ample concerns about being excluded from export markets if biotech was introduced into the Imperial Valley,” Emanuelli said. “Our main concern is preserving the organic and conventional production of hay and seed for the export market. We are currently in open discussion with Monsanto and Forage Genetics through a partnership with the Imperial County Farm Bureau which is hosting open discussion forums.”

Emanuelli embraces technology as a tool to “help farmers feed the world’s growing population.”

He hopes GMO and non-GMO alfalfa can one day co-exist in the Imperial Valley with proper stewardship including “ample isolation” between GMO and non-GMO alfalfa production areas.

The export company ACX Pacific Northwest, based in Bakersfield, Calif., ships forage products from the Imperial Valley and other locations overseas. A post on the company’s website says some end users in the export market are not ready to accept RR alfalfa.

“We know genetically modified alfalfa might be accepted by some governments; however, end users are making it very clear they do not want this product,” the company said.

Potential gene flow

Potential gene flow is a major source of concern in the Imperial Valley especially between seed fields. Some Imperial growers produce forage and seed from the same field; cutting hay early and then letting the same field go to seed for seed production.

Until recently, technology could not accurately measure gene flow from a GMO field to a non-GMO field.

Finding answers to the gene flow question is the goal of a research team led by UC alfalfa geneticist Larry Teuber. The group began quantifying RR alfalfa gene flow in Kings County in 2003.

Trials conducted in western Fresno County from 2006 to 2008 included an almost 6-square mile commercial alfalfa seed production area with no forage production fields in the vicinity.

Shannon Mueller, UCCE Fresno County farm advisor, tracked honey bees in the fields marked with either a colored powder or protein dust; a process developed by James Hagler of the USDA-ARS in Maricopa, Ariz.

The marking techniques allowed researchers to determine how far honey bees flew from hives to forage in surrounding alfalfa seed fields. Collected seed samples were analyzed to determine the gene flow percentage. Results suggest gene flow declines with increased distance from the RR alfalfa source field.

“The gene flow at 1 mile was less than one quarter of 1 percent,” Mueller said. “The gene flow at 3 miles was three-hundredths of 1 percent. No gene flow was detected at 5 miles.”

Mueller says the RR alfalfa trait is easy to detect in seed samples and provides an accurate measurement of gene flow.

“It is up to the industry to establish a threshold they will accept,” Mueller said. “Research results can help determine the distance between fields to achieve the desired result.”

Gene flow discussions in relation to the recent deregulation of RR alfalfa are not unique to RR alfalfa. Pollen has always moved between neighboring fields, yet researchers lacked the tools to accurately measure the gene flow. Technological advancements have changed that.

cblake@farmpress.com