USDA to Fully Deregulate Genetically Engineered Alfalfa

USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service says it will grant non-regulated status for alfalfa that has been genetically engineered to be resistant to glyphosate herbicides.

USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service says it will grant non-regulated status for alfalfa that has been genetically engineered to be resistant to glyphosate herbicides.

"After conducting a thorough and transparent examination of alfalfa through a multi-alternative environmental impact statement and several public comment opportunities, APHIS has determined that [genetically engineered ] alfalfa is as safe as traditionally bred alfalfa," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. "All of the alfalfa production stakeholders involved in this issue have stressed their willingness to work together to find solutions. We greatly appreciate and value the work they've done so far and will continue to provide support to the wide variety of sectors that make American agriculture successful."

USDA said it is taking several steps, including:  

  • Reestablishing two important USDA advisory committees: the Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture, and the National Genetic Resources Advisory Committee. These two committees will tackle a broad range of issues, from ensuring the availability of high quality seed, to helping ensure that growers have access to the best tools available to support their production choices, to whether risk management and indemnification options can play a role; 
  • Conducting research into areas such as ensuring the genetic integrity, production and preservation of alfalfa seeds entrusted to the germplasm system; 
  • Refining and extending current models of gene flow in alfalfa; 
  • Requesting proposals through the small business innovation research program to improve handling of forage seeds and detection of transgenes in alfalfa seeds and hay; and, 
  • Providing voluntary, third-party audits and verification of industry-led stewardship initiatives. 

The decision follows a recent congressional hearing during which panel members were highly critical of Vilsack's previous proposal that would have restricted the growing of genetically engineered alfalfa to protect organic farmers from feared biotech contamination. Only about 1 percent (about 250,000 acres) of alfalfa is organic, and alfalfa is raised as hay on about 20 million acres, making it the fourth-biggest U.S. crop by acreage.

USDA considered restricting areas where the crop could be planted, a move that Secretary Vilsack argued would help prevent litigation. But the secretary's approach on this matter attracted significant opposition in Congress and from mainstream farm groups and biotech companies.

But other behind-the-scenes opposition came from some officials at the U.S. Trade Representative's office, who said restricting the growing of biotech alfalfa would undermine Washington 's efforts to persuade other countries to accept genetically engineered crops.

Another possible development affecting Vilsack's decision on this matter was a recent directive from President Obama for agencies and departments to review "burdensome" regulations on the books or via proposals. (It took USDA 47 months to complete an Environmental Impact Statement that totaled 2,300 pages when it was released in December.)

This may not be the end of the long process on this matter. Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, the advocacy group that organized a lawsuit against USDA on the issue of biotech crops, said his group would soon ask the judge in the case to rule that the environmental impact statement was still inadequate.

Meanwhile, Vilsack said he expects to make decisions soon on two other biotech crops in time for planting this year: sugar beets and a corn variety designed for use in fuel ethanol. 

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