Roundup Ready Alfalfa Cross pollination is a concern

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From an aerial view, Valencia County is a patchwork of vibrant green alfalfa fields in a tapestry of cropland, pastures and villages.

But beneath the radar of this bucolic scene lie two potential threats that could unravel traditional farming.

Genetically-modified alfalfa has come to the county and with it the risk of cross-pollinating conventional alfalfa and triggering the growth of super weeds.

Genetically-modified alfalfa can withstand being sprayed with the herbicide, Roundup, and its called Roundup Ready alfalfa. Both products are developed by the agricultural company Monsanto.

New Mexico State University crop scientists say cross-pollination can be avoided with proper management.

"If you stop the flowers, then you stop the movement of pollen," said Leonard Lauriault, NMSU superintendent and forage crop management scientist. "If alfalfa is harvested before it flowers, farmers will minimize any pollen production and the likelihood of pollinating insects coming into their fields and moving that pollen around."

During the monsoon season, that is not always possible.

Los Lunas farmer Mitch Vergeer has a few fields of Roundup Ready alfalfa.

"If it's raining, there's not a whole lot you can do. You just have to bear with it, and I would hope Monsanto would take that into consideration," Vergeer said. "If you can't get into the fields — the fields are wet — then you can't cut."

So far, state agronomist Rudy Garcia hasn't heard of any cross-pollination issues,

"I haven't had any response from field officers dealing with cross-pollination issues among New Mexico farmers," said Garcia, who would not specifically comment on the issue of Roundup Ready alfalfa.

But Vergeer takes cross-pollination very seriously. All the farmers he's heard about that have been sued by Monsanto for cross-pollination have lost, he said.

"If you don't do what they have told you, then you're liable," Vergeer said.

Monsanto spokesperson Kelly Clauss, said the company has never sued a farmer when trace amounts of its seeds or traits were present in the farmer's field as an accident, or as a result of inadvertent means.

"That is a myth that has been perpetuated on the Internet," Clauss said.

In order to grow Roundup Ready alfalfa, Vergeer had to sign a contract with Monsanto.

"They'll give you like a license number so you can buy the seed, and once you plant a field of Roundup Ready alfalfa, you need to go back and give them the GPS coordinates on that field," Vergeer said.

He believes fields are monitored by satellite.

The other issue, super weeds, doesn't seem to be a problem in New Mexico yet, at least not in this area, but farmers in the Midwest have already been experiencing monster weeds resistant to glyphosate.

In 2011, Reuters reported that Kansas soy farmers were battling huge waterhemp weeds that had become resistant to Roundup in their GM soy fields.

In 2012, U.S. News & World Report published a story on herbicide-resistant super weeds. In February, the Rockford Register Star reported that super weeds were crowding in on corn and soybeans, and last month, The Eagle, reported that pigweed has become glysophate-resistant in Texas cotton fields.

Pigweed is one of the weeds that plagues New Mexico crop fields, said local farmer Matthew Aragon.

In the U.S. News & World Report article, Jason Koebler said farmers were enamored with genetically-modified seeds built to withstand glyphosate.

"But after years of constant exposure, certain invasive plants have also developed a resistance, leading farmers to use more of the chemical."

If farmers rely strictly on Roundup, then some plants that are not killed will likely develop a resistant weed population, Lauriault said.

And that is exactly what appears to be happening across the nation. Because of Roundup's ability to kill most weeds and because it can be used repeatedly on Roundup Ready crops, farmers just use more when weeds start becoming a little resistant.

"That works for awhile, but then a couple years later, even that doesn't work, so they need to start adding other herbicides, 2, 4-D, like dicamba," said molecular biologist Margaret Mellon, in an interview with Acres USA in March.

"About 92 percent of the soybean and cotton fields were reported in 2013 to be infested with Roundup-resistant weeds. Across the country, 50 percent of the Roundup crop acreage is now infested with weeds, and it's getting worse," she said.

University scientists recommend farmers change up the herbicides they use in order to prevent resistance build up.

There are many reputable scientists on both sides of the GMO and glyphosate debates. Only time will tell, but meanwhile farmers such as Verdeer depend upon local university crop specialists for new technologies to solve their problems.

"For me, it's a little bit of a pride thing; I like my fields nice and clean without any weeds," Verdeer said.

"I wouldn't put Roundup Ready alfalfa in a field next to a neighbor growing alfalfa for seed. It's my responsibility that my pollination doesn't get to his field," he said.

To find information about alfalfa pollen and Monsanto's stewardship policies, visit www.monsanto.com and "GMO Myths and Secrets," which is available as a free download at www.earthopensource.org/index.php/reports/gmo-myths-and-truths. A video, "Genetic Roulette," is available from amazon.com and Netflix.


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