USDA signaled a major change in its policy toward genetically modified crops when it released its final environmental impact statement (EIS) on Roundup Ready alfalfa last Thursday.

In announcing the release, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) evaluated three options when preparing the 2,300-page EIS. It weighed the pros and cons of maintaining Roundup Ready alfalfa’s current regulated status vs. deregulating the transgenic crop, which would permit growers to plant it with no restrictions. But it also looked at a third option, which essentially is a compromise between the first two. That alternative calls for “deregulation accompanied by a combination of geographic restrictions and isolation distances on the production of GE (genetically enhanced) alfalfa seed and, in some locations, GE hay,” Vilsack explained.

“These measures would help to protect the production of non-GE alfalfa seed,” he added.

It marks the first time USDA has considered imposing restrictions on a genetically modified crop, and diverts from the findings of the draft EIS released last December. When preparing that document, APHIS only considered continued regulation and full deregulation, concluding preli-minarily that there would be “no significant impact on the human environment due to granting non-regulated status to Roundup Ready alfalfa.”

Vilsack said APHIS added the deregulation-with-restrictions option “to recognize and consider the many concerns that we have heard from all segments of agriculture. We are equally committed to finding solutions that support, not only the developers and users of biotechnology products, but growers who rely on purity in the non-genetically engineered seed supply.”

If USDA chooses to implement that option, Roundup Ready alfalfa forage production would be severely restricted in states where more than 1% of the U.S. alfalfa seed is produced. The EIS states that, in Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming, alfalfa couldn’t be grown for forage in counties where seed is produced. Also, isolation distances of five miles would have to be maintained between Roundup Ready and conventional alfalfa seed fields in those states.

In states where lesser amounts of seed are produced (Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Texas), alfalfa planted for forage within 165’ of a seed field would have to be harvested at or before 10% bloom.

There would be no restrictions on planting Roundup Ready alfalfa for forage production in 27 states where no alfalfa seed is produced.

In the EIS, APHIS lists the full and partial deregulation options as preferred, but doesn’t indicate that it favors one over the other. Vilsack said a decision will come “sooner rather than later” after a 30-day public comment period that begins Dec. 23, when the EIS is expected to be published in the Federal Register.

During that period, Vilsack said he hopes to work with industry stakeholders to develop a strategy that will enable Roundup Ready, organic and conventional alfalfa growers to co-exist. An initial meeting reportedly was held in Washington, D.C., yesterday (Monday). Groups invited to send representatives included Forage Genetics International, Center for Food Safety, National Alfalfa and Forage Alliance and American Farm Bureau Federation.

A copy of the EIS can be reviewed at www.aphis.usda.gov/.