Alfalfa growers who want to plant Roundup Ready varieties will have to be patient. The biotech seed won't be legal again until USDA completes an environmental impact statement, which could take two years. And there is no guarantee it'll happen then. Opponents of Roundup Ready alfalfa almost certainly will try to keep it off the market.

“Some people were hoping they might be able to sell seed a year from this fall, but there's a pretty low probability of that,” says Dan Undersander, University of Wisconsin extension forage agronomist.

Seed sales likely won't be legal until fall of 2009 at the earliest, other sources say.

Rachel Iadicicco, a spokeswoman for USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which is doing the environmental assessment, won't give a target date for its completion.

“It's a lengthy process to do an environmental impact statement, but this is one of our highest priorities,” she says.

APHIS began gathering information for the statement in July, more than two months after the May 3 permanent injunction mandating it. The agency first had to develop required production procedures for existing Roundup Ready fields. Judge Charles Breyer ruled that steps must be taken to minimize the risk that alfalfa from those fields will contaminate organic and conventional alfalfa.

In the injunction, Breyer ordered APHIS to mail the required production procedures to Roundup Ready growers within 45 days. But sources say his lack of knowledge about forages made it difficult for the agency to meet his demands and develop realistic requirements. APHIS workers also were unfamiliar with hay and silage production practices, which complicated the problem.

Initially, the judge ruled that Roundup Ready alfalfa must be stored in specially designated and clearly labeled containers. Later, on June 25, he issued a court order saying that ruling should apply only to Roundup Ready alfalfa seed.

The June 25 amended judgment also made a significant change in the procedure for ensuring that equipment is properly cleaned before it's moved from a Roundup Ready to a non-Roundup Ready field. The injunction stated that every grower must submit his proposed cleaning procedures to APHIS for approval. The amended judgment simplified the process, ordering APHIS to publish and distribute a best practices guide for cleaning farm equipment.

The equipment cleaning guide is part of a July 12 administrative order issued by APHIS. Undersander and Dan Putnam, University of California extension forage agronomist, helped write the cleaning procedures.

“They're really not that bad,”says Undersander.

Before moving mowing, raking, merging, baling or stacking equipment from a Roundup Ready to a non-Roundup Ready field, growers and custom harvesters must “sweep, blow with forced air, or wash exterior parts clean,” the guide says. The same procedure is sufficient for choppers; no internal cleaning is needed.

For square balers, the first three bales made in a non-Roundup Ready field must be removed and stored with Roundup Ready alfalfa from the previous field. Wagons and trucks used to haul the transgenic crop must be swept clean before they're used on conventional alfalfa.

The cleaning guide makes up a large portion of the July 12 administrative order. A smaller section deals with identification of Roundup Ready hay and seed. It says that all bales of alfalfa hay that leave the farm where they were made must be identified by a “Roundup Ready Alfalfa” tag.

That requirement generated many complaints from growers and grower organizations, including the California Alfalfa and Forage Association (CAFA). In a July 31 letter to APHIS, leaders of CAFA pointed out that 95% of that state's alfalfa — about 7 million tons — is marketed.

Labeling of individual hay bales would be “nearly impossible for growers to accomplish,” the letter said. “Even though growers want to adhere to these regulations, they will not be physically able to do so.”

The group asked for an addendum permitting the identification of Roundup Ready hay lots, not individual bales, except in cases where bales are sold individually. At press time, the issue hadn't been resolved.

To read the July 12 order, go to www.aphis.usda.gov/biotechnology/alfalfa.shtml. Then scroll down to “View the July 12, 2007 APHIS Administrative Order.”

APHIS scientists are gathering information for the environmental impact statement with help from Kadix, an Arlington, VA, company that does contract work for the federal government. Monsanto and Forage Genetics International also have been asked to supply data.

According to Iadicicco, “Some of the things being looked at are the economic impacts of Roundup Ready alfalfa on non-genetically engineered adopters, effects of Roundup Ready alfalfa on development of Roundup-resistant weeds, effects of glyphosate use on the environment, and also food and feed safety of Roundup Ready alfalfa.”

The agency will eventually write a draft environmental impact statement, then there will be a public comment period. That's when groups like the Center for Food Safety (CFS), a plaintiff in the lawsuit that resulted in the injunction, are likely to speak up.

“I want to emphasize that we will be participating throughout the process,” says Will Rostov, a senior CFS attorney. “We think there are a lot of problems with Roundup Ready alfalfa, and the environmental impact statement should demonstrate some of those problems.”