If Roundup Ready alfalfa seed heads back to the marketplace, it probably won't be because of this summer's developments, which included a U.S. Supreme Court ruling and letters sent to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack by two groups of congressmen and an alfalfa organization.
Officials at USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) say they're striving to finish the court-ordered environmental impact statement (EIS) this year so if the biotech crop is approved for sale, it'll happen in time for spring 2011 plantings.
Work on the EIS continues because, while the June 21 Supreme Court ruling overturned the 2007 injunction that banned the sale and planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa seed, it didn't change the crop's regulated status. The district court judge who issued the injunction also reversed USDA's decision to deregulate it, and any crop regulated by USDA must have an EIS showing that it's environmentally safe before the agency can permit widespread planting.
It's unlikely USDA could have taken steps to allow limited planting this fall, says Mark McCaslin, president of Forage Genetics International. The biotech crop is subject to the National Environmental Policy Act, so an environmental assessment would have to be completed followed by a public comment period, he points out.
“Even if it was pedal to the metal, I don't think there's any way that fall planting is possible,” says McCaslin, whose company developed Roundup Ready alfalfa in conjunction with Monsanto.
However, he's encouraged by APHIS officials' verbal commitment to finish the EIS this year and to make a final determination on the crop's safety by spring.
“I trust that they're going to do everything they can to get that done,” says McCaslin.
The same day the high court ruling was made, 56 U.S. senators and representatives headed by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) wrote to Vilsack, asking him not to allow the biotech crop back on the market. The letter took issue with APHIS' draft EIS, released last December, which found that deregulating Roundup Ready alfalfa would have “no significant impact” on the environment.
It warned that widespread planting of the crop would result in contamination of conventional and organic alfalfa by the Roundup Ready gene, resulting in significant economic harm to alfalfa seed producers and the organic dairy industry. In addition, the letter said that alfalfa growers could lose at least $197 million annually in alfalfa seed and hay exports as a result of contamination.
The National Alfalfa & Forage Alliance (NAFA) learned of that letter while it was still circulating through Congress and quickly wrote one to counter it, reports Beth Nelson, its president. The June 8 NAFA letter to Vilsack asked him to “rely on science-based conclusions contained in the APHIS EIS and resist attempts by others to politicize the issue.”
In his response, he assured NAFA that the final EIS will be “complete and scientifically sound,” she reports.
Nelson says writing letters to public officials “absolutely” has an impact, but figures the first congressional letter was neutralized by the second one, sent July 16. That letter, signed by 75 congressmen, was organized by Reps. Lynn Jenkins (R-KS), Wally Berger (R-CA) and Joe Courtney (D-CT). Signers included House Ag Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN), ranking member Frank Lucas (R-OK) and 25 other members of that committee.
It asked Vilsack to partially deregulate Roundup Ready alfalfa so farmers can plant it this fall. The writers pointed out that the crop reduces weed control costs and increases yield, and that farmers have lost an estimated $250 million by not being able to plant it during the EIS process.
Because the draft EIS concluded that the crop is environmentally safe, they asked that it be partially deregulated so inventoried seed could be planted.
That seed is in controlled bulk storage, McCaslin reports. The injunction permitted the harvesting of existing Roundup Ready acres, and Forage Genetics honored contracts with seed growers, he says. So seed has been harvested the past three years.
“The good news is, if and when we get the green light, we'll have seed to sell,” says McCaslin.