Sunday, February 6, 2011

Alfalfa battles remain

Battles remain for biotech alfalfa
By Mateusz Perkowski
Capital Press
February 04, 2011

Opponents gear up for court fight after USDA approves crop

Biotech opponents are spoiling for another court battle over genetically engineered alfalfa now that the USDA has lifted all restrictions on the controversial crop.

The Center for Food Safety, which helped convince a federal judge to halt most production of the crop in 2007, has vowed to challenge the legality of full deregulation.

Andrew Kimbrell, the group’s executive director, cautioned farmers against buying genetically engineered alfalfa seeds.

“Within a short period of time, they may be illegal to plant,” he said.

In 2007, a judge required the USDA to conduct an environmental impact statement, or EIS, analyzing the crop’s effects before it could be re-commercialized.

Kimbrell claims the agency has fallen short of its legal obligations.

“His order was to take a hard look at gene flow, the economic impact on farmers and the creation of superweeds,” he said. “They have failed to do their homework.”

The USDA did an exhaustive job of studying the crop, so its review is unlikely to contain any critical errors that would prompt the judge to again block production, said Mark McCaslin, president of Forage Genetics International.

The company is licensed to market the crop under an agreement with Monsanto, which developed the “Roundup Ready” trait.

The biotech trait is aimed at simplifying weed control. Farmers can spray their fields with glyphosate herbicides, killing weeds without damaging the crop.

The USDA initially deregulated the crop in 2005, but some conventional alfalfa seed producers and environmental groups filed a legal complaint against the agency, claiming the decision was unlawful.

In 2007, a federal judge agreed and issued an injunction that halted plantings of genetically engineered alfalfa until the EIS was complete.

Cultivation of Roundup Ready alfalfa remained restricted despite a U.S. Supreme Court opinion that overturned the injunction last year. The ruling kept the crop under regulated status until USDA decided on the terms for deregulation.

When the final version of the study was released in December 2010, the agency was still thinking about limiting the crop’s cultivation.

The USDA has decided that it lacks the regulatory authority to continue imposing restrictions on the crop, since the EIS determined Roundup Ready alfalfa doesn’t pose a plant pest risk.

McCaslin said he’s relieved USDA decided against subjecting the crop to restrictions that would put 20 percent of U.S. alfalfa acreage off-limits to the technology.

“It would have been a can of worms,” he said.

Despite the time-consuming obstacles confronted by Roundup Ready alfalfa, Monsanto has not backed off from developing new biotech traits for the crop, said Steve Welker, the firm’s commercial alfalfa lead.

“It has not scared us away,” he said, noting that Monsanto will next try to commercialize biotech alfalfa with reduced lignin, which will make the forage and hay easier for livestock to digest.

Welker wouldn’t speculate about the precedent this case may have set within the USDA, such as an increased likelihood the agency will subject biotech crops to an EIS before deregulation.

“The direction they go from here, we don’t know,” he said.

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