It looks like Roundup Ready alfalfa seed will be available to growers again late next year. USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) reportedly is on schedule preparing the court-ordered environmental impact statement (EIS) on Roundup Ready alfalfa, and proponents are confident it will show that the transgenic alfalfa and conventional alfalfa can successfully co-exist.

Mark McCaslin, president of Forage Genetics International, was part of a National Alfalfa & Forage Alliance (NAFA) delegation that recently visited APHIS in Washington, D.C. “We asked for an update on the court-ordered Roundup Ready alfalfa EIS,” he reports. “They told us they expect to have a draft EIS completed by the end of 2008 or very early 2009.” Following a public comment period, the agency will draft a final EIS. “They said that at this stage they believe the EIS process is on track for the promised two-year completion, suggesting a deregulation decision in late 2009,” says McCaslin.

He says a critical part of the EIS will focus on a review of stewardship strategies for managing co-existence of alfalfa seed and forage production for genetically enhanced (GE) and various GE-sensitive markets. “Based on NAFA’s positive conclusions from its comprehensive analysis of co-existence strategies (summarized on NAFA’s Web site, www.alfalfa.org), I am optimistic about a positive outcome.”

Although two years seems like a long time, it’s in the best interest of the alfalfa industry that the EIS is as thorough as possible to minimize the risk of a new lawsuit challenging the process and the deregulation decision, says McCaslin. “APHIS appears cognizant of that risk, and is doing all it can to be sure that it adheres to the EIS process, and that the analysis is as thorough as possible.”

On June 10, arguments were heard in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on an appeal of the May 3, 2007, permanent injunction prohibiting any new planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa seed. The appeal was filed by USDA, Forage Genetics, Monsanto and several Roundup Ready alfalfa growers, and argued by Mark Kesselman, the USDA general counsel. It asserts that the injunction imposed unnecessary restrictions and costs on alfalfa hay and seed growers.

“We’re not thinking that this is going expedite the commercial availability of Roundup Ready alfalfa seed for new plantings,” says McCaslin. “There are so many unknowns in the legal process, to predict any sort of outcome at this point would be very difficult.”

He doubts that a January 2008 lawsuit challenging the legality of Roundup Ready sugarbeets will affect the Roundup Ready alfalfa case. Plaintiffs in the sugarbeet suit include the Center for Food Safety (CFS), the same group that led the lawsuit against Roundup Ready alfalfa, and it was filed in the same federal court in northern California. CFS tried unsuccessfully to get the sugarbeet suit adjoined to the Roundup Ready alfalfa case, says McCaslin.

“It’s being handled as a completely separate case by a different judge, so it probably doesn’t have much impact,” he says.

Forage Genetics developed the first Roundup Ready alfalfa varieties under a licensing agreement with Monsanto. The varieties were introduced to growers in 2005, then were pulled off the market following a March 12, 2007, preliminary injunction and kept off by the May 3 permanent injunction. The lawsuit leading to the injunctions claimed, and the judge in the case agreed, that USDA erred when it deregulated Roundup Ready alfalfa without first completing an EIS.