Roundup Ready alfalfa was granted non-regulated status today, Jan. 27, by USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

Soon after the decision allowing unrestricted, national commercial planting of the genetically engineered (GE) crop was announced, organizations such as the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) lauded it. The Center for Food Safety, Organic Trade Association and other opponents criticized it, and Monsanto announced the availability of its transgenic alfalfa variety for spring planting.

“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,” said Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack. “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.”

A final EIS released last December was to be the last step before a decision on the trangenic’s fate after a California federal court stopped its sale and planting in 2007, a year and a half after it was deregulated by USDA.

Yet USDA was quick to point out that it “took another step to ensure that this issue received the broadest examination before making its final decision. USDA brought together a diverse group of stakeholders to discuss feasible strategies for coexistence between GE, organic, and other non-GE stakeholders. The stakeholders helped to identify areas of consensus; issues where the group disagreed and opportunities for further dialogue exist; and areas where USDA could – or should – play an important and helpful role.”

The government agency outlined several steps it will take in response to that meeting. That includes re-establishing the Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture as well as the National Genetic Resources Advisory Committee. According to USDA, these 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.”

USDA also promised to conduct research into areas ensuring the genetic integrity, production and preservation of alfalfa seeds entrusted to the germplasm system; refine and extend current models of gene flow in alfalfa; request proposals through the Small Business Innovation Research program to improve handling of forage seeds and detection of transgenes in alfalfa seeds and hay; and provide voluntary, third-party audits and verification of industry-led stewardship initiatives.

Just after that announcement came a slew of press releases, including comments from NCGA members.

“We would like to thank Secretary Vilsack for keeping grower choice as a priority. Farmers need access to technology so that they can choose the option that is best for their farm,” said Darrin Ihnen, NCGA chairman from Hurley, SD. “Biotechnology can improve a farm’s efficiency and decrease the amount of chemical needed for that crop. We need choice to raise more food, feed, fiber and fuel for the world’s growing needs.”
“This is the right decision,” added Jim Zimmerman, vice chairman of NCGA’s Trade Policy and Biotechnology Action Team and a Rosendale, WI, grower. “A clean, full deregulation is the best decision for producers and lets farmers plant the kind of alfalfa they choose this spring.”
Christine Bushway, executive director and CEO of the Organic Trade Association (OTA), said her organization was “deeply disappointed.

“This creates a perplexing situation when the market calls for a supply of crops free of genetic engineering. The organic standards prohibit the use of genetic engineering, and consumers will not tolerate the accidental presence of genetic engineered materials in organic products, yet GE crops continue to proliferate unchecked.

“Preserving market and farmer choice and agricultural diversity are central to USDA’s mission and the future of rural American livelihoods. This failure to do so will make it increasingly difficult to meet the growing demand for U.S. organic crops,” Bushway said.

The group that filed the lawsuit stopping the marketing of Roundup Ready alfalfa, the Center for Food Safety, also criticized the deregulation announcement and promised further legal action.

“We’re disappointed with USDA’s decision and we will be back in court representing the interest of farmers, preservation of the environment, and consumer choice,” said Andrew Kimbrell, its executive director. “USDA has become a rogue agency in its regulation of biotech crops and its decision to appease the few companies who seek to benefit from this technology comes despite increasing evidence that GE alfalfa will threaten the rights of farmers and consumers, as well as damage the environment.”