USDA reverses course, weighs restrictions on alfalfa

The Department of Agriculture is considering the imposition of geographic restrictions and isolation distances on the cultivation of a genetically modified crop, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced today, a stark reversal of the agency's previously laissez-faire policies.

The deregulation of Roundup Ready alfalfa, engineered by Monsanto Co. to resist the popular herbicide glyphosate, could be accompanied by restrictions on seed production and, in some cases, cultivation of the hay itself, should USDA decide on implementing one of two preferred alternatives presented in a court-ordered environmental review of the crop, released today by the department.

USDA has not chosen between two equally weighted alternatives presented in the review, ordered by a federal judge several years ago. The department could still deregulate the crop without any restrictions, as it has done with past biotech crops like corn and soy, Vilsack said. The secretary will be inviting representatives from the biotech and organic industries to his offices in the coming days to discuss how the two farming methods may coexist, he added.

"We have seen rapid adoption of biotechnology in agriculture, along with the rise of organic and nongenetically engineered sectors over the last several decades," Vilsack said. "While the growth in all these areas is great for agriculture, it has also led, at times, to conflict or, at best, an uneasy coexistence between the different ways of growing crops. We need to address these challenges and develop a sensible path forward for strengthening coexistence of all segments of agriculture in our country."

USDA's consideration of the modified alfalfa, which will be finalized in January, is an attempt to reckon with the thicket of legal challenges the department has faced in the past few years.


Decisions by a federal court in California have forced USDA to reverse deregulation decisions on bioengineered alfalfa and sugar beets in the past few years, citing the department's failure to reckon with the economic and social toll the biotech crops could bring if they accidentally bred with organic varieties (Greenwire, Oct. 8, 2009).

Those suits have pushed existing regulations to a breaking point, Vilsack said. While regulators have done an excellent job of ensuring the safety of bioengineered crops -- which constitute a vast majority of the corn, soy and cotton grown in the country -- they have heard clearly from the courts that they have not met the needs of organic growers, he said.

"The situation, as I see it, is untenable for agriculture," he said. Farmers have been uncertain about whether and when they can grow crops, causing economic pain. "Our regulatory system has been strained by these legal challenges," he added. "We shouldn't let decisions about coexistence be set by litigation."

Coming weeks will see jostling between large-scale farmers and the organic industry as they seek to influence USDA's decision on biotech alfalfa, fearing the precedent it could set.

Many farmers and the large biotech seed companies are likely to oppose the implementation of geographic restrictions or isolation distances -- the latter detail distance-based buffers between crops to prevent wind-blown pollination -- arguing that such measures are better hashed out between local growers.

Sharp turn for USDA

The final environmental impact statement for Roundup Ready alfalfa marks a dramatic turn from USDA's own draft proposal, released last year. That proposal sought to deregulate the crop without any controls, though it acknowledged that some organic farmers could be economically hurt, a finding that amounted to "no significant impact." The updated, 2,300-page report instead puts more options on the table, Vilsack said.

While environmental groups and organic farmers list several complaints against biotech crops, the most credible economic concern is that modified crops can pollinate with their conventional cousins.

According to U.S. standards, organic crops containing trace amounts of bioengineered varieties are still considered organic, but many export markets, like Europe and Japan, are warier of modified crops and will brand a crop genetically engineered if only a slight amount is detected.

Alfalfa, a domesticated legume, is primarily used for hay and animal feed. Many farmers have long sought the simplified weed control that could come with Roundup Ready varieties, while such herbicide-resistant crops typically cause a stark increase in weedkiller use, Roundup and its generic equivalents, known as glyphosate, are far more environmentally benign than many alternative equivalents.

USDA's consideration of seed-growing restrictions does not signal a drop in its commitment to the use of genetically modified crops, Vilsack added. The release of the alfalfa EIS is a "first step," he said, in a long-postponed conversation that needs to happen now.

"We will partner with all those who want to roll up their sleeves and work with us and each other to find common-sense solutions to today's challenges," he said. "And we will do so openly and transparently."

USDA has sent the review to U.S. EPA, which is likely to publish the notice in the Federal Register on Dec. 23. After its publication, the document will be open to a month of public comment.

Click here to read a copy of the final report.

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