Many farmers had been pushing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to approve the use of genetically modified alfalfa. Monsanto developed the seed to resist the weedkiller Roundup, allowing farmers to use the two together to save time and labor on weeding. Supporters also say the use of the genetically modified seeds lets farmers grow more alfalfa on each acre and helps keep food prices low.
Opponents, many of them organic farmers, say widespread planting of genetically modified alfalfa will result in pollen from those plants contaminating organic and traditional crops, destroying their value. While alfalfa is mostly used as hay for cattle, some consumers don't want to eat foods, such as milk or beef, from animals that have consumed genetically modified plants.
Alfalfa is grown on about 20 million acres in almost every state in the U.S. and is the fourth-largest field crop behind corn, soybeans and wheat.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's decision late last month to deregulate genetically modified alfalfa was the latest step in a long court fight over its use. A federal court barred its planting in 2007, saying the USDA had not given enough consideration to the effects it could have on the environment and human health. The U.S. Supreme Court lifted the ban last year, saying the lower court's decision had gone too far. It kicked the matter back to the USDA.
In announcing the agency's decision, Vilsack said steps would be taken to ensure genetically modified alfalfa wouldn't cross-pollinate with organic and unmodified crops. USDA officials declined to answer questions about what those steps would entail, pointing to a document posted on the agency's website.
The text of Vilsack's announcement says the agency plans include expanding a program in Washington state to produce more unmodified alfalfa seed and maintain a pure supply.
It also says crop geneticists have been told to identify ways to protect unmodified alfalfa from genetically engineered varieties, like they are doing for corn. And, Vilsack has proposed research to improve detection of modified genes in alfalfa and hay. He also promised $1 million for research on the flow of pollen to better determine how big buffer zones between modified and unmodified fields must be to prevent contamination.
None of that will be enough to prevent contamination, said Jeff Wolt, an agronomist with Iowa State University's Seed Science Center.
"Some degree of cross-pollination will occur regardless of what mechanism is going to be put in place," he predicted.
A perennial, alfalfa doesn't need to be planted every year, but the plants are typically rotated with other crops every few years. Alfalfa's pollination process is more complex than in crops such as corn, with insects playing a big role. But even if insects don't carry pollen from modified to unmodified plants, contamination could still happen if seed stock was accidentally mixed or a genetically modified plant popped up in a field that had been replanted with something else, Wolt said.
The main thing for consumers to remember, he said, is that genetically modified alfalfa doesn't present a threat to human health. Instead, the problem for farmers is that some buyers might not accept a contaminated crop.
Unmodified corn, soybeans, canola and rice all suffered contamination after genetically engineered varieties were introduced, said Kristina Hubbard, director of advocacy for the Organic Seed Alliance in Washington. She said measures to protect unmodified and organic crops should have been in place before genetically engineered alfalfa was deregulated.
"It seems backward to initiate those measures after the decision has been made," Hubbard said.
Her group's biggest concern now is making sure farmers who plant organic or non-modified crops don't lose money because of contamination. It believes the companies that develop and promote the seeds should be held liable for any damages resulting from contamination, Hubbard said.
Monsanto spokesman Tom Helscher said farmers and seed companies successfully co-existed "long before the introduction of biotech crops and continue to do so today."
"Since the advent of biotech crops, both biotech and organic production have flourished," Helscher said. "We have no reason to think that will not continue to be the case."
Todd Streif, who grows alfalfa in northeast Iowa, said the fight over genetically engineered alfalfa has been a "waste of time and money."
"I think (the USDA) was probably wrong for not doing the environmental study in the first place, but in the end what did it prove?" said Streif, who farms near West Union. "It wasted years of production for everybody and a lot of money spent arguing it in court."
Streif said 60 of the 300 acres of alfalfa he plants this spring will be genetically modified. He doesn't grow any organic alfalfa and said he wasn't worried about cross-pollination between his modified and unmodified plants. The nearest organic farm is several miles away.
Fred Kirschenmann, who manages a farm near Jamestown, N.D., but works at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, said he gave up growing organic canola in the late 1990s after Roundup-resistant canola seeds were introduced.
There needed to be two miles between fields to reduce the risk of cross-pollination and "so much Roundup Ready came into the area, there was no way to find a way to put in a field that was at least two miles from a field with the GMO crop," Kirschenmann said.
He still raises other organic crops, including alfalfa, and said he's worried about how genetically engineered alfalfa will affect it.
"There are so many avenues for contamination to happen," Kirschenmann said. "It has to be managed extremely carefully, but in the long-term I think there's going to be a problem."