USDA Decides to Deregulate Biotech Alfalfa Without Conditions

January 28, 2011 Bookmark and Share

USDA said Thursday it is granting deregulated status to Roundup Ready alfalfa, meaning growers won’t face isolation distances and other restrictions on planting of the genetically modified crop.

This announcement, which came from the Department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), was highly anticipated following the release of an environmental review, known as an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), in late December and the expiration of a review period on Monday.

The EIS, which USDA was compelled to complete following a 2007 court ruling, took nearly four years to complete and runs more than 2,000 pages. It concluded that Roundup Ready alfalfa is not a plant pest.

Still, when releasing the EIS, USDA said for the first time it was considering deregulating the crop with restrictions including isolation distances, geographic planting restrictions, limitations on harvest periods and equipment usage, seed bag labeling, seed coloration and the listing of seed production field locations on a national database.

Mainstream agriculture groups and key Members of Congress voiced strong opposition to this potential path because it would, for the first time, make the biotech deregulation process non-science-based and because of its severe implications for alfalfa producers, future biotech approvals and the United States’ efforts to encourage trading partners to make science-based policies.

The House Agriculture Committee held a public forum on the issue last week, at which Vilsack was asked tough questions about his Department’s plans by Members from both sides of the aisle.

In USDA’s statement Thursday, Vilsack said his agency’s decision-making process was inclusive, bringing together growers of organic, conventional and genetically modified crops to discuss the concept of coexistence.

“After conducting a thorough and transparent examination of alfalfa through a multi-alternative environmental impact statement (EIS) and several public comment opportunities, APHIS has determined that Roundup Ready alfalfa is as safe as traditionally bred alfalfa,” he said in the statement.

Vilsack also announced Thursday a number of steps USDA plans to take in conjunction with the deregulation of Roundup Ready alfalfa.

The Department said it will reestablish two advisory committees to examine issues related to biotechnology, including coexistence.

USDA also will also conduct research into “ensuring the genetic integrity, production and preservation of alfalfa seeds entrusted to the germplasm system”; continue to refine models of gene flow in the crop; request proposals to improve handling of and detection of genetically modified varieties of alfalfa; and provide voluntary, third-party audits and verification of industry-led stewardship initiatives.

NAWG has joined with coalition partners to voice support for policies that allow growers to choose what they can plant. Had the Department opted for partial deregulation, restrictions on the production of Roundup Ready alfalfa could have been so stringent they would prevent 20 percent of alfalfa farmers nationwide, and 50 percent of alfalfa farmers in western states, from choosing to grow the crop.

While there is currently no commercialized biotech wheat anywhere in the world, research is being done that should eventually produce the first biotech wheat trait. NAWG, U.S. Wheat Associates and other industry partners have watched the alfalfa process closely and weighed in as appropriate because its outcome is so vital to the future regulatory process biotech wheat traits might face.

APHIS’ full record of decision deregulating Roundup Ready alfalfa is available at http://www.aphis.usda.gov/brs/aphisdocs/04_11001p_rod.pdf.

For more information about USDA’s proposed actions to support coexistence dialogue, visit http://www.usda.gov/documents/USDAContinuedDialogueConstructiveCoexistence.pdf.