Roundup ready alfalfa

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(Editor’s note: This the first of a series of articles about the genetically-modified alfalfa being grown across the country and right here in Valencia County.)

(Editor’s note: This the first of a series of articles about the genetically-modified alfalfa being grown across the country and right here in Valencia County.)

Most of the lush, green fields seen in Valencia County are alfalfa crops ― leafy plants with small purple flowers.

Deborah Fox-News-Bulletin photo: Genetically modified alfalfa looks identical to conventional alfalfa. Mitch Vergeer, a Los Lunas farmer, grows both conventional alfalfa and is trying the genetically altered Roundup Ready alfalfa.

It is a high-protein hay used to feed livestock, horses and dairy cows.

What is not visible is that some of those alfalfa fields are genetically-modified crops.

Genetically modified organisms, commonly called GMOs, are plants and animals whose genetics have been altered in a laboratory. A gene from an organism, usually a bacteria or virus with a desirable trait, is inserted into a different organism’s DNA to add that trait to that organism.

In this way, alfalfa was modified to survive being sprayed with the herbicide called Roundup Ready, a product of the agricultural company Monsanto.

Weeds are simply plants growing where you don’t want them, and a farmer’s battle with weeds is a problem as old as agriculture.

When other plants compete for space in a crop field, it can mean a lower-quality harvest.

In Valencia County, among the troublesome plants are foxtail, kochia, mustard weed and buckhorn plantain.

“If anybody sees foxtail in a bale, they just don’t want it for sure,” said Los Lunas farmer Mitch Vergeer. “Foxtail is probably the worst that people don’t want to see in their hay for their horses or cows.”

Vergeer farms about 360 acres in the county, mostly alfalfa and a few fields of Roundup Ready alfalfa.

Valencia farmer Matthew Aragon says the weed problem is a never-ending challenge.

“In this day and age, every new weed that comes up in our fields is either noxious or invasive, and it’s a relentless, endless battle,” Aragon said. “Each weed is chemical specific. So, if we’re getting a grass weed, you’ve got to use a grass herbicide, and if it’s a broad leaf weed, you’ve got to use a broad leaf killer specific to that weed.”

For New Mexico and Valencia County, where alfalfa is the No. 1 crop, Roundup Ready alfalfa seems to be a blessing. For one, Roundup is a much cheaper herbicide than other weed killers.

“Roundup can be used to kill weeds in an alfalfa field as often as a farmer needs to,” said Mark Marsalis, the county extension forage specialist from New Mexico Sate University. “Roundup will kill some of the most noxious weeds that compromise the quality of alfalfa hay.”

The biggest weed problem Aragon has struggled with is buckhorn plantain. He explained that the seeds are carried to fields through irrigation water as well as by egrets and other birds.

“It can devastate your alfalfa field,” Aragon said. “It can put you out of business. It is extremely invasive, so you have to treat it, and this is where it becomes complicated.”

Alfalfa is categorized as a broad leaf plant, but so is buckhorn plantain. Using a broad leaf-specific weed killer can damage or kill alfalfa plants as well, but Roundup Ready alfalfa solves that problem.

“Roundup is a lot cheaper to kill mustard weed in my alfalfa than the $400 to $450 a gallon for Pursuit,” Vergeer said. “That kills mustard weed, but it won’t kill tumbleweed or kochia.”

The bottom line is, Roundup Ready alfalfa can potentially increase a farmer’s profit margin. For small farmers, that could be the difference between losing the farm and being able to stay in business.

“There are genetic modifications in all sorts of crops,” said Leonard Lauriault, superintendent and forage crop management scientist at New Mexico State University. “Generally, they are herbicide or insect disease resistance related ― cotton, corn, soy beans, canola, sugar beets, alfalfa, wheat ― there are many, many genetically modified crop varieties out there.”

The advantage of GMOs help farmers stay competitive. Their fields have to produce at maximum productivity to pay for the rising costs of production.

But conventional alfalfa growers, such as David Chavez, of Chavez Farms in Los Lunas, are concerned GMO alfalfa will invade his fields.

“We don’t even know how it will affect our health,” Chavez said.

He’s not alone. Mike Melendrez, owner of Trees That Please and Soil Secrets in Tomé, said he is concerned that labs are not doing long-term studies to see how it will affect human health.

“There is no longitudinal studies that have been done by anybody, including Monsanto, to demonstrate that there will not be a long-term repercussion to human health,” Melendrez said.

The only studies being done are to determine if the GMO is doing what it was created to do, he said, but long-term studies to determine if the fruits and vegetables of GMO plants are going to affect the health of the individual or the animal that eats it, have not been done.

“They’re not looking at that at all,” Melendrez said.

In an email correspondence with Monsanto, spokesperson Kelly Clauss stated that Roundup Ready alfalfa is safe and can be grown with organic and conventional alfalfa without impacting them.

“As consumers ourselves, we place the highest priority on the safety of our products,” said Clauss.

The company conducts comprehensive product testing and implements quality control and stewardship programs to support a commitment to safety, she said.

Bosque Farms Councilor Dolly Wallace, who raises and trains registered quarter horses with her husband, Bob, was raised in a farming community.

“Coming from a farming family, I know how hard it is to control the weeds and how expensive it can be,” Wallace said.

At first, she thought Roundup Ready alfalfa would be a good thing for farmers and be more cost effective for them, thus reducing her hay costs as well.

But a veterinarian who bought a horse from her, Regina Downey, of New Hampshire, said she didn’t think feeding horses the GMO hay was a good idea.

“They are finding in their studies that these horses are having more intestinal problems — more colic,” Wallace said. “They’ve tested it for the plants; that’s fine, but they really haven’t tested it on the animals.”

In more than 60 countries around the world, including Australia, Japan and countries in the European Union, there are significant restrictions or outright bans on the production and sale of GMOs.

In the United States, GMOs aren’t required to be labeled.

“When the drop is sold for hay, there is nothing to distinguish it from conventional alfalfa hay, so buyers don’t know what they’re buying,” Vergeer said. “They just go by visual and cut quality.”

Alfalfa has been planted in New Mexico maybe as early as 2005, but most of it has been planted since 2011, Lauriault said.

(Editor’s note: Next week, the News-bulletin will explore how Roundup Ready alfalfa is created, and some of the pros and cons of GMO foods.)


-- Email the author at dfox@news-bulletin.com.