Genetically modified (GM) alfalfa is headed back to the hay field. USDA’s decision to deregulate biotechnology-derived, glyphosate-tolerant alfalfa is now in effect and without conditions.
The move is the final step in an environmental review process that took more than 100,000 comments and almost four years to complete. Roundup Ready alfalfa—co-developed by Monsanto Company and Forage Genetics International, a subsidiary of Land O’Lakes—has been in the works since 1997. Approximately 250,000 acres of it was planted before a 2007 court order halted further planting until USDA could review complaints by organic farming groups.
Mark McCaslin, president of Forage Genetics International, says the timing couldn’t be better. "There should be plenty of seed available for this spring," he says.
McCaslin says farmers who have experience with glyphosate-tolerant alfalfa report a $110 per acre advantage compared with conventional alfalfa.
Government accountability. Before making its final decision, USDA brought together a diverse group of alfalfa production stakeholders to discuss strategies for coexistence. From that discussion, USDA is taking a number of steps, including:
- re-establishing two USDA advisory committees: the Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture and the National Genetic Resources Advisory Committee. The committees will tackle a range of issues, from ensuring the availability of quality seed to deciding whether risk management and indemnification options can play a role;
- conducting research to ensure the genetic integrity, production and preservation of alfalfa seeds;
- refining and extending current models of gene flow in alfalfa;
- requesting proposals through the Small Business Innovation Research program to improve handling of forage seeds and detection of transgenes in alfalfa seeds and hay; and
- providing voluntary, third-party audits and verification of industry-led stewardship initiatives.
Even with these measures, questions remain about GM crops. Organic farmers say certification standards prohibit the use of genetic engineering and consumers will not tolerate the accidental presence of genetic materials in organic products.
USDA’s decision opens the door for further discussion on GM crops. In February, the agency is expected to decide if it will issue an approval for GM sugar beets in time for planting.