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USDA makes decision on genetically engineered alfalfa

Action raises likelihood of renewed court challenge, says organic watchdog

by Sustainable Food News
January 27, 2011

The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Thursday ruled on the controversial decision to deregulate Monsanto Co.'s genetically engineered alfalfa.
The agency said it will fully deregulate the crop - Monsanto Co.'s RoundUp Ready (RR) alfalfa, which is genetically engineered to be resistant to the herbicide commercially known as Roundup.

The decision was one of three options identified in the USDA’s Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) released last month.

Other options in the FEIS included limited regulation with bans on the planting of GE alfalfa seeds in seed growing regions to attempt to limit the contamination of alfalfa seed stock by foreign DNA from the crop.

Alfalfa is pollinated by bees and other insects and has a pollination radius of five miles, according to organic watchdog The Cornucopia Institute.

The decision is a huge blow to organic food industry, which had lobbied for limited deregulation.

“We are extremely disappointed with the USDA’s decision to fully deregulate Monsanto’s GE-alfalfa," said CI's Will Fantle in an email to Sustainable Food News. "It appears that the political muscle of bio-tech sector trumped the many concerns about widespread contamination of organic and conventional alfalfa that were expressed by tens of thousands of consumers and farmers to the USDA. This action raises the likelihood of a renewed court challenge by the Center for Food Safety to GE-alfalfa, a case in which The Cornucopia Institute is a plaintiff to.”

Planting of GE-alfalfa can now begin this spring.

The perennial crop is a staple forage for the livestock industry.

The USDA said the decision is based on a plant pest risk assessment prepared by USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which found there is no plant pest risk associated with RR alfalfa.

APHIS said it chose the deregulated alternative because RR alfalfa did not present a greater plant pest risk than other conventional alfalfa varieties.

"In fact, APHIS did not find any direct or indirect plant pest risks associated with RR alfalfa," the agency said. "APHIS concluded the following in its plant pest risk assessment: RR alfalfa exhibited no plant pathogenic properties – although a plant pathogen was used in their development, these plants are not infected by this organism nor do they contain genetic
material from pathogens used as a donor organism that can cause plant disease."

The USDA held a meeting with stakeholders in December that was guised as a "coexistence discussion" - basically how GE crops can exist with organic and non-GMO crops.

The agency said its goals going forward will be to help "maintain purity of non-GE alfalfa seed," from germplasm to commercial use.

It said it will improve stewardship practices and develop new tools to lessen the risk of gene flow in alfalfa; and assist in strengthening cooperation and coexistence among alfalfa producers.

Some of the specific steps USDA said it will take to achieve these goals include:

  • Reestablishing two important USDA advisory committees - 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.


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