by Rick Mooney
Editor, eHay Weekly

The long-awaited draft of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on Roundup Ready alfalfa may still be released before the end of this year, say officials at USDA’s Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

“APHIS has made good progress on the document and currently anticipates releasing a draft EIS later this year,” stated APHIS officials in an email response to eHay Weekly last week. “USDA does not have a timeline for when a final EIS and record of decision will be published. However, completing the EIS is a high priority for USDA, and we are mindful of the impacts that the timing of our process could have on alfalfa producers.”

The need for an EIS developed in spring 2007, when a California federal judge ruled in a lawsuit brought by the Center For Food Safety and a conventional seed grower that USDA should have completed an EIS before deregulating the crop. The judge also issued an injunction prohibiting the sale of Roundup Ready alfalfa seed until the EIS was completed.

Initially, the EIS process was expected to take two years, with the draft finished by late 2008. But there have been several delays, and USDA has been criticized for its slow progress.

“It’s frustrating and disappointing,” says alfalfa grower Steve Rice, Wilsonville, NE. “It’s really unfortunate that we have an advancement in technology like this and we can’t use it because it’s tied up in the judicial system.”

Depending on the year, Rice and his brother, Scott, grow alfalfa on 1,500-2,000 acres, producing large square bales for the dairy and beef feedlot markets. The Rices have their own transport company and have marketed hay in 21 states.

They planted 250 acres of Roundup Ready alfalfa the first year seed was available to get better control over hybrid pigweed. “It did exactly what we wanted it to,” says Rice. “We planted it in the fall and sprayed with Roundup. That’s the only time we had to spray for the first two years we had the stand. If it had continued to be available, we would have planted the whole farm to it. We were thrilled to death with it.”

As for the current delay on the draft EIS, Rice notes that it’s already too late for the brothers to consider planting the transgenic crop next spring. “If we had thought earlier it was going to be available, we would have farmed differently this fall. But now we’ve already made our arrangements for next year.”

Rice’s bottom line: “It’s costing us money everyday this isn’t on the market. But there’s really nothing we can do about it. It’s just the way our system works.”

Mark McCaslin, president of Forage Genetics, which developed the first varieties under a licensing agreement with Monsanto, was also disappointed over the delays in the draft EIS process. “The failure of USDA to commit to a time frame for completion certainly causes uncertainty for growers and makes it difficult for them to make planting decisions for next year,” wrote McCaslin in an email response to eHay Weekly last week.

This is the first EIS developed by APHIS for a biotech crop, he also pointed out. “We understand their dedication to making sure it thoroughly addresses the required issues,” he wrote. “While the USDA review process has taken more time than expected, we support a thorough process. At the same time, we want to see the process of bringing Roundup Ready alfalfa back to the U.S. market move as quickly as possible to benefit growers.”

Once the draft EIS is completed, the public will have 60 days to comment on it. After considering comments, APHIS will develop a final EIS. Under the National Environmental Policy Act, the final EIS must be published and available for public inspection 30 days before publication of the record of decision. APHIS officials say that it’s impossible to predict how long the entire process will take.

“USDA-APHIS will take as long as is needed to completely review and respond to the questions that come into the agency through the public comment process,” agency officials pointed out in last week’s email. “How long the response takes is going to be a function of the number and nature of comments received. It would be speculation to give a length of time between end of public comment period and final EIS.”

Even so, Forage Genetics’ McCaslin believes there’s still a good chance that the process could be completed in time to allow some growers to plant Roundup Ready alfalfa in 2010. “Many farmers do make their planting decisions in the January-February time frame. But it’s important to remember that alfalfa is planted at various times of the year across the U.S. In fact, one of the special attributes of RR alfalfa is the ability to be planted at non-traditional times due to the ease of weed control. If USDA makes this review a high priority and assigns adequate resources, we believe the process can be completed in a time frame that allows planting in early to mid-2010.”

Several options are available to growers who want to track EIS developments. Information on the status of Roundup Ready alfalfa is available on the APHIS Web site. Another option is to register on the Forage Genetics’ Web site to receive regular updates on the status of the EIS and the progress in bringing the transgenic crop back to the U.S. market. Growers and others will also be able to use the site to provide comments to USDA once the EIS is available for public comment.

Editor’s Note: In a related development, Monsanto, Forage Genetics and two alfalfa growers have petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review the lower court decision that deregulated Roundup Ready alfalfa until the EIS is completed and reviewed. For more details, see “Appeal On Roundup Ready Alfalfa Ban Is Made To Supreme Court.”

How has the delay in finalizing the draft EIS affected you? Let us know by using the article-commenting area below.