California Alfalfa & Forage Association

Soon after the news broke about the February 13 court decision involving RR alfalfa, we received a call from a reporter asking for comment. We may have seemed impolite by not having anything to offer. When an issue gets into the court system, however, sizing up the impact and future developments is best left to the experts. If we had given our frank opinion to the writer, the X-rated answer would not have been printed anyway.

With quick grower acceptance and the benefits of RR alfalfa, the court case put a damper, at least temporarily, on what has been a major plus. And, more breakthroughs are sure to develop as biotech traits continue to undergo evaluation.

The February ruling by the U.S. District Court for Northern California (Geertson Farms Inc., et al., v. Mike Johanns, et al.,) cited a “significant impact of gene transmission” and failure to consider deregulation's impact on the “development of Roundup resistant weeds.” A March 12 “preliminary injunction order” by the District Court prohibited planting of RR alfalfa after March 30, something which will hopefully change before this column appears or in the not too distant future.

In this year's March 10 edition of Western Farm Press, Harry Cline's front page article (“Roundup Ready alfalfa gains quick acceptance,”) had eye-opening information based on grower experience. The dairyman/grower quoted in the article noted that, “RR alfalfa yields more consistently,” and he's confident that better weed control with less herbicide use will extend stand life.

More benefits are on the drawing board as researchers continue to work on new traits for alfalfa that will benefit production as well as quality and feed value. eHay Weekly, published by Hay & Forage magazine, recently summarized biotech traits being tested and what the research holds for the future.

Forage Genetics International's, Mark McCaslin summed up current research by saying it's “an exciting time” for alfalfa improvement. “We see significant potential for new traits to increase forage yield, improve forage quality and/or increase the role of alfalfa in animal diets.”

The eHay Weekly article highlighted developments discussed at the Western Alfalfa and Forage Conference in December. One is reduced-lignin alfalfa, which may provide more flexibility in harvest management and increase forage quality and yield. Lignins give the plant structure, but are indigestible for ruminants.

Scientists can “turn off” most of the genes that help form lignin, thereby increasing digestibility. “We may be able to offer reduced-lignin alfalfa to the market around the year 2012,” McCaslin reported.

The article also discussed the benefits of producing tannins in leaves and stems. Tannin-containing forages bind with proteins and help slow protein degradation in the rumen. “The U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center estimates that tannin alfalfa could decrease protein feed supplement costs for dairy operations by 60 percent and decrease nitrogen losses to the environment by around 25 percent,” McCaslin said. Tannin alfalfa plants may be ready for research this year.

Equally exciting is the effort of biotech companies to increase drought tolerance, water-use efficiency and delayed flowering. “These new transgenes may offer an opportunity to significantly increase forage yield in alfalfa,” said McCaslin.

Based on what we heard and read in the lead up to deregulation, we weren't surprised that RR alfalfa was targeted. We got a dose of the hysteria about two years ago when someone called CAFA's office and began ranting and raving about the evil technology and urged us to oppose deregulation. Maybe the hysteria will fade away some day, but in the meantime there's no telling what to expect from the anti-GMO crowd.

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