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March 23, 2007

Planting deadline looms for Roundup Ready alfalfa, expert says

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Time is running out on forage producers to plant alfalfa seed genetically modified to withstand glyphosate herbicide. Whether the clock is restarted on future Roundup Ready alfalfa use remains to be seen, said a Purdue University-based seed expert.

A recent court decision halting the sale and planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa means producers have until March 30 to legally plant the biotech varieties, said Larry Nees, state seed administrator for the Office of the Indiana State Chemist. The office is the state agency charged with administering agricultural regulations for seeds, fertilizer, animal feeds and pesticides.

Because Roundup Ready alfalfa was introduced just two years ago and costs more than twice as much than conventional alfalfa seed, there likely aren't many Indiana producers who've purchased the varieties, Nees said.

Roundup Ready alfalfa seed costs approximately $6-$7 per pound, compared to about $2-$4 a pound for conventional varieties, Nees said. Technology fees add to the price of Roundup Ready varieties, he said.

"Roundup Ready alfalfa seed would be utilized by a serious grower of alfalfa for forage purposes," Nees said. "It's quite expensive, so I don't think you'll see widespread use of the varieties in Indiana. But I think it's significant to know that there probably are farmers throughout the state who purchased those varieties and have them in their possession and were intending to use them at some point this year."

On March 12 a federal judge in San Francisco issued a court decision barring the sale and use of Roundup Ready alfalfa after March 30. U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer granted the injunction at the request of a group of organic forage growers and environmental and consumer activists. The group claimed the alfalfa varieties could be harmful to the environment and the economy.

Breyer's ruling marked the first time a U.S. Department of Agriculture approval for a genetically modified seed product was overturned by a federal court.

An April 27 hearing will determine whether the injunction becomes permanent.

Farmers who've already planted Roundup Ready alfalfa are not affected by the court decision, Nees said.

"The injunction that's been filed does not impact any continued used, harvest or sale of Roundup Ready forage," he said. "It's important to note that the decision of this case was not focused on the safety of Roundup Ready alfalfa and Roundup Ready alfalfa seed.

"The district court that issued the injunction, and other regulatory agencies like the USDA, all agree that it poses no harm to humans and/or livestock. It's just an issue of technicality as to how this was originally approved by the USDA and whether all the steps were taken to make sure that there was no impact on the organic growers and the conventional alfalfa growers in certain areas of the country."

Inspectors from the Office of the Indiana State Chemist are contacting seed dealers statewide to inform them of the court decision. Seed dealers are being asked to notify their farmer customers about the March 30 deadline and give farmers credit for returning unused Roundup Ready alfalfa seed, Nees said.

Any Roundup Ready alfalfa not already in the ground isn't likely to get planted by the court deadline, said Keith Johnson, Purdue Extension forage specialist.

"With soils as wet as they are right now, by the time they dry and tillage is done, seeding is not going to happen by March 30," he said. "The actual planting window for alfalfa in Indiana is late March to the first part of May, anyway."

Johnson said there are fields of Roundup Ready alfalfa in Indiana, but the number of acres is small.

Indiana growers harvested 1.47 million tons of alfalfa from 360,000 harvested acres in 2006. Alfalfa makes up about half the hay produced in Indiana.

Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup brand herbicide.

Writer: Steve Leer, (765) 494-8415,

Sources: Larry Nees, (765) 494-1557,

Keith Johnson, (765) 494-4800,

Ag Communications: (765) 494-2722;
Beth Forbes,
Agriculture News Page

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