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Genetically-modified seed stirs debate
The seed is there, but growers may not buy it.
Roundup Ready alfalfa, a variety genetically modified to resist the broad spectrum herbicide glyphosate, is now available. But concerns about cross pollination, spread of seeds by wind, consumer reaction and cost may keep the crop out of some fields.
“Most growers are sitting back and watching to see if it works out for them economically,” said Steve Orloff, farm advisor for Siskiyou County at the University of California Cooperative Extension farm in Tulelake.
Roundup Ready alfalfa has been grown since 2001 in test plots at the Intermountain Research and Extension Center in Tulelake. The seed, produced by Monsanto, is genetically modified to resist glyphosate, which includes herbicides such as Roundup and Rodeo.
Glyphosate is an herbicide that kills a broad spectrum of weeds. It also damages and destroys conventional alfalfa. Monsanto already produces genetically modified Roundup resistant seeds such as corn, soybeans, cotton and other crops.
David Oxley, who owns the Quarter Circle X Ranch on South Poe Valley Road, says there are two things keeping him from growing the genetically modified alfalfa.
“I think the expense is still kind of high,” he said.
Roundup Ready alfalfa costs around $6.50 a pound, depending on where seed is purchased. Conventional alfalfa costs around $3 a pound.
And, since Oxley predominately grows a mix of orchard grass and alfalfa in his fields, it wouldn’t fit in with his operation. Using Roundup as an herbicide would damage or possibly destroy the other half of his crop — the orchard grass.
There are some advantages engineered into the variety.
“A major pro is that it will make weed control in alfalfa fairly easy,” Orloff said.
Conventional alfalfa requires a mix of herbicides, increasing a grower’s costs, whereas weeds in the genetically modified alfalfa field would be controllable with a single herbicide — Roundup. This could provide an economic advantage for the grower.
Weed control is an economic challenge for alfalfa growers. Some weeds are poisonous to livestock and a high weed content lowers the price a grower can get for the crop.
Growers lose about $20 to $30 a ton for alfalfa with a high weed content.
Roundup also controls quack grass and dandelion in Roundup Ready alfalfa, something other herbicides can’t do in a conventional alfalfa crop.
“I think a lot of growers will use it in their fields that have the worst weed infestations, especially perennial weeds they can’t control at the current time,” Orloff said.
Roundup Ready alfalfa yields are comparable to the conventional crop.
“The only thing they’re changing is its resistance to Roundup,” Orloff said.
The economics of growing Roundup Ready alfalfa would depend on the grower, and how effective their weed control system is, Orloff said.
“For most people I think it would pencil out,” he said.
But concerns about who will buy the crop also are part of the economics, Orloff said.
The Japanese government just approved import of Roundup Ready alfalfa, but ultimately it’s the opinion of the Japanese consumer that will count.
Orloff doesn’t believe the same hurdle will need to be overcome in the U.S. since most of the alfalfa is consumed by dairy cattle. Dairies are already using other genetically engineered products in feed, such as Roundup Ready cottonseed and corn.
“I don’t think it will be that much of an issue here,” Orloff said.
Cross pollination between forage fields shouldn’t be a problem, Orloff said, since much of the crop is harvested before it is in bloom.
And fields where alfalfa is grown for seed are isolated to prevent cross pollination.
Orloff said there is a test growers can use to see if there is any Roundup Ready alfalfa in their field.
The test will show if there is a 5 percent or greater presence of the variety in a in a field.
“It’s even been accurate down to 1 percent,” Orloff said.
Photo courtesy of the Intermountain Research and Extension Center Conventional alfalfa, killed by the herbicide Roundup, is shown at the Intermountain Research and Extension Center in Tulelake. It is growing next to Roundup Ready alfalfa plant varieties which are undamaged by the herbicide.
Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:14 AM Pacific
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