USDA OKs GE alfalfa for planting |

USDA OKs GE alfalfa for planting

Jerry Hagstrom

WASHINGTON (DTN) – USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has granted genetically engineered (GE) Roundup Ready alfalfa seed non-regulated status, meaning farmers can plant it anywhere without barriers or geographic restrictions, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2011.

“With this decision, farmers can freely move and plant [Roundup Ready] alfalfa seed without further oversight from APHIS,” USDA said in a news release.

Vilsack also said that as early as next week, he will announce decisions about genetically engineered sugar beets and a type of corn.

Vilsack told reporters that USDA will take a number of actions to assure the continued availability of non-GE alfalfa seed.

The decision on GE alfalfa was received negatively by organic alfalfa producers, but lauded by mainstream agriculture groups. Several mainstream ag groups have argued that Vilsack’s consideration of a plan to require buffer zones and other geographic restrictions on the planting of a GE crop would run counter to the development of modern scientific agriculture and would make it difficult for the U.S. government to convince other countries not to restrict genetically modified seeds and the foods produced from those crops.

“This creates a perplexing situation when the market calls for a supply of crops free of genetic engineering,” Christine Bushway, executive director and CEO of the Organic Trade Association (OTA), said in a press release immediately following the approval announcement. “The organic standards prohibit the use of genetic engineering, and consumers will not tolerate the accidental presence of genetic engineered materials in organic products yet GE crops continue to proliferate unchecked.”

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A main driver in the legal battles against GE alfalfa and sugarbeets, the Center for Food Safety (CFS), also expressed displeasure at the USDA decision. According to a Reuters story, CFS executive director Andrew Kimbrell vowed his group would seek a court order vacating this latest government approval.

USDA had to make the decision after a federal court ruled that an environmental assessment was inadequate and ordered APHIS to conduct a full environmental impact statement. The environmental impact statement concluded there was no risk that genetically engineered alfalfa would become a pest plant.

Vilsack had proposed three options on Roundup Ready alfalfa seed: full deregulation, deregulation with a plan to deal with the ramifications and deregulation with the plan that would have included geographic barriers. Vilsack said he did not choose the last plan because the Roundup Ready alfalfa “did not exhibit a greater plant pest risk in the geographically restricted areas… therefore, it would not be consistent with APHIS’ regulatory authorities.”

Last week, members of the House Agriculture Committee questioned whether Vilsack had the legal authority to restrict Roundup Ready alfalfa if there was no risk. At that time, Vilsack said he believed he did have the authority because he needed to consider the economic impact on the organic alfalfa industry. On Thursday, Vilsack maintained that he did have the legal authority to restrict GE alfalfa, but declined to use it.

The incoming chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-MI, issued a statement Thursday expressing support for USDA’s decision. But she also cautioned that flaws in the current biotechnology regulatory system, caused by multiple lawsuits, must be addressed to provide certainty for industry investors, farmers and consumers.

“I applaud the USDA’s decision to deregulate Roundup Ready alfalfa, giving growers the green light to begin planting an abundant, affordable and safe crop,” Stabenow said in a press release. “While I’m glad this decision was guided by sound science, I’m concerned that USDA’s process creates too much uncertainty for our growers. Alfalfa was one of nearly two dozen genetically modified crops awaiting USDA evaluation and approval – a bottlenecked process that hinders growth and progress.”

Stabenow said that in the coming months, she will examine how a properly functioning, science-based system can be established that promotes industry investment, growth and job creation while ensuring safe and affordable products for consumers.

Vilsack told reporters that the GE alfalfa situation was complex and that he wants farmers to have a choice about what they plant. He said the steps he was taking, which include planting non-genetically engineered seed in a remote area of Washington state and authorizing a number of research projects, would assure that. However, he did not address the question of the purity of organic alfalfa crops that could be located near fields of genetically engineered alfalfa.

Vilsack assured consumers that there is no food safety issue with GE alfalfa.

USDA’s Record of Decision on Roundup Ready alfalfa is available to the public at