Consisting of 22 million acres, alfalfa is the fourth largest crop produced in the United States. Like most crops, there is an ongoing battle between genetically engineered producers and organic producers of alfalfa.
However, a recent study conducted by UC Davis plant scientists suggests that gene flow between GE alfalfa and organic alfalfa can be minimized.
Allen Van Deynze, Daniel Putnam and Larry Teuber of UC Davis co-authored the report “Gene Flow in Alfalfa: Biology, Mitigation, and Potential Impact on Production,” published in September by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology.
Gene flow, or the exchange of genetic materials between plants, is a natural occurrence. However, there is a concern about an exchange between GE alfalfa and organic alfalfa.
“Genetically engineered alfalfa is prohibited in organic production, as are many other practices, such as pesticides and non-organic fertilizers,” said Putnam of the department of agronomy and range science. “Thus, organic growers need to be careful not to plant genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa, just as they don’t use pesticides or chemical fertilizers.“
While gene flow is a large concern for both organic producers and consumers, it is important to recognize that a genetic flow between GE and organic alfalfa does not affect the performance of the crop.
“From a practical standpoint such changes in gene frequency are extremely unlikely to have any consequential change in the performance of the recipient population – the cultivar,“ Teuber said. “There are however, real [social and business] concerns associated with the unintended presence of a genetically engineered trait in either conventional or organically produced forage (hay) or seed. These concerns revolve around the marketability of a product known to have a low level presence of this unintended trait.“
Putnam estimates that only 3 to 5 percent of alfalfa producers are growing for “sensitive markets“ – markets that purchase organic produce. Although gene flow between the two types of alfalfa only affects a very small percentage of alfalfa producers, this study is important for growers and consumers.
“In my view, in spite of the minority status of these ‘sensitive‘ growers, it‘s very important to assure that they can successfully grow and market the crops using the technology that they choose [e.g.] organic or conventional for export,” Putnam said.
This study is also prevalent as it shows that if producers take the necessary precautions, both organic and GE alfalfa can coexist with minimal gene flow between the two. There are a variety of alfalfa growing-practices producers can perform in order to minimize genetic flow.
“All of these practices are predicated on mutual agreement of all parties involved: Each has the right to produce for their particular market and that each has the responsibility to follow a stewardship plan that will maintain the genetic purity of all cultivars,” he said.
“Factors that factor into this stewardship plan include: mutual acknowledgement of the location of sensitive production, maintaining isolations distances that exceed the known distance for detectable gene flow – our studies have not detected gene flow beyond 3 miles,” Teuber said.
The study is especially relevant to California, one of the United States‘ largest alfalfa providers.
“In California, we are responsible for 30 percent of alfalfa seed,” said Van Deynze, a professional researcher for plant sciences. “We are a big supplier for the United States.“
The authors are all in agreement that coexistence between organic and GE producers is what is most important. Teuber also hopes that their research on gene flow will generally aid all farmers, not just alfalfa producers.
“First, there will be a much greater understanding of the biology of gene flow and its consequences in both biological and agricultural systems and second, production systems will be modified according to the findings of these studies – resulting in greater genetic purity of agricultural crops in general,” Teuber said.
MEGAN ELLIS can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.