Up to two years' supply available, officials estimate
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
Farmers who want to grow genetically engineered alfalfa should have no problem getting their hands on the seed, according to biotech developers.
The USDA's decision to deregulate the crop has unleashed a stockpile of glyphosate-resistant alfalfa seed that had accumulated over several years.
"As of noon yesterday, there's a glut of alfalfa seed," said Mark Wagoner, a seed grower based in Touchet, Wash., the day after USDA made its announcement on Jan. 27.
Forage Genetics International, which is marketing the Roundup Ready alfalfa developed by Monsanto, would not disclose how much of the biotech seed was in storage.
Farmers under contract with the company were able to produce genetically engineered alfalfa seed in 2007, 2008 and 2009, said Mark McCaslin, president of Forage Genetics. Under a federal judge's order, seed harvested during those years could not be sold to hay and forage growers.
"There's quite an inventory of seed built up, so we don't expect a lot of new (biotech) seed production," said Beth Nelson, president of the National Alfalfa and Forage Alliance.
There's probably enough Roundup Ready seed in storage to meet farmer demand for up to two years, she said.
Nelson said the sudden influx of genetically engineered seed can be expected to supplant some of the conventional seed available in the market, but she would not comment on how increased overall supplies may affect prices.
Wagoner said the impact shouldn't be drastic, since seed companies have anticipated the USDA's decision and scaled back on conventional alfalfa seed production.
Roundup Ready alfalfa also isn't likely to be embraced as quickly -- or to become as dominant -- as other biotech crops, like corn, soybeans and sugar beets, he said.
In the Midwest, many farmers grow pastures of alfalfa mixed with other crops that can't withstand glyphosate. Such growers wouldn't have much use for the biotech trait.
"We think the adoption will vary by region," said Nelson.
Many farmers in the Midwest also grow alfalfa for their own use instead of selling it to other growers or foreign buyers, Wagoner said. For them, the importance of having weed-free alfalfa may not justify paying roughly twice as much for seed.
"If there's some weeds they chop up, they don't really care," he said.
On a national scale, roughly half of alfalfa acreage is eventually expected to be planted using genetically engineered seed, with most of that production concentrated in the West, Wagoner said.
Between 2005, when Roundup Ready alfalfa was initially deregulated, and 2007, when a federal judge enjoined most production, only about 1 percent to 2 percent of total alfalfa acreage was genetically engineered, said Steve Welker, commercial alfalfa lead for Monsanto.
Even in Western states, farmers are unlikely to plow up young fields of conventional alfalfa to replace it with Roundup Ready varieties, he said. Instead, they'll switch to genetically engineered alfalfa when it fits into their crop rotation, which may take several years.
"We'll just have to wait and see," Welker said.