The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture News As It Happens

Vilsack: Genetically engineered alfalfa can be grown without restrictions


Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced today that USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has granted genetically engineered Roundup Ready alfalfa seed non-regulated status, which means it can be planted anywhere without barriers or geographic restrictions.

“With this decision, farmers can freely move and plant [Roundup Ready] alfalfa seed without further oversight from APHIS,” USDA said in a news release.

Vilsack also said that as early as next week, he will announce decisions about genetically engineered sugar beets and a type of corn.

Vilsack told reporters that USDA will take a number of actions to ensure the continued availability of non-GMO alfalfa seed. The decision is likely to be received negatively by organic alfalfa producers but please mainstream agriculture groups that had argued Vilsack’s consideration of a plan to require buffer zones and other geographic restrictions on the planting of a genetically engineered crop would run counter to the development of modern scientific agriculture and make it difficult for the United States to convince other countries not to restrict genetically modified seeds and the foods produced from those crops.

USDA had to make the decision after a federal court ruled that an environmental assessment was inadequate and ordered APHIS to conduct a full environmental impact statement. The environmental impact statement concluded there was no risk of genetically engineered alfalfa becoming a pest plant. Vilsack had proposed three options on Roundup Ready alfalfa seed: full deregulation, deregulation with a plan to deal with the ramifications, and the plan that would have included the geographic barriers. Vilsack said he did not choose the last plan because the Roundup Ready alfalfa “did not exhibit a greater plant pest risk in the geographically restricted areas … therefore it would not be consistent with APHIS' regulatory authorities.”

Last week, members of the House Agriculture Committee questioned whether Vilsack had the legal authority to restrict Roundup Ready alfalfa if there was no risk. At that time, he replied that he believed to need to consider the economic impact on the organic alfalfa industry gave him the authority. Today he said that while he did have the legal authority, he declined to use it.

Vilsack told reporters that the situation was complex and that he wants farmers to have a choice about what they plant, and that the steps he was taking, which include planting non-genetically modified seed in a remote area of Washington state and authorizing a number of research projects, would assure that.

He did not address the question of the purity of organic alfalfa crops that could be located near fields of genetically engineered alfalfa. He also assured consumers that there is no food safety issue with genetically engineered alfalfa.
Incoming Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., BIO, a biotechnology industry group, and the National Council of Farm Co-operatives all issued statements praising Vilsack's decision.