Growers continue to grow seed, but current stock at risk for deterioration
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
A seed company has asked the USDA to partially deregulate production of genetically engineered alfalfa, proposing strict restrictions that would most deeply affect Western states.
Forage Genetics produced and marketed several varieties of glyphosate-resistant "Roundup Ready" alfalfa under a licensing agreement with the Monsanto Co., the trait's developer.
The crop was initially deregulated in 2005, but a federal judge reversed that decision in 2007, ruling that APHIS should have conducted a full environmental review of its potential effects.
APHIS officials expected to finish that study, known as an environmental impact statement, within two years, but the work is still not complete. In the meantime, growers under contract with Forage Genetics have continued producing the seed, which has been put into storage.
Some of the oldest seed has begun to deteriorate in quality, prompting the company to petition APHIS to allow commercialization of the crop on a limited basis by next spring.
Mark McCaslin, president of Forage Genetics, said the proposal for partial deregulation is intended to be an interim measure.
The hope is that APHIS will complete the full EIS by the end of the year, which would render the company's proposal moot, he said.
"It's still an option that's out there, but our desire is for APHIS to focus its energy on a final EIS," he said.
Any deregulation of the crop was prohibited by the 2007 judge's order, but earlier this year the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that aspect of the ruling and allowed APHIS to propose partial deregulation measures.
Under the regulatory scheme suggested by Forage Genetics, states would be subject to several tiers of restriction, depending on the amount of alfalfa seed they generate.
Eleven states, primarily in the West, are responsible for the bulk of alfalfa seed production and would thus be subject to the most stringent requirements.
Actual restrictions would vary county-by-county.
For example, in counties without reported alfalfa seed production, growers would have to report the Global Positioning System coordinates of their forage Roundup Ready alfalfa fields.
In some situations, they would also have to harvest the crop before it reaches 10 percent bloom to prevent cross-pollination with conventional varieties.
In counties where alfalfa seed is grown, new plantings of forage Roundup Ready alfalfa would be prohibited altogether.
The genetically engineered seed itself would only be grown in "eight pre-authorized, physically isolated locations" in the U.S., with several large seed farmers operating in each area, the petition said.
Currently, uncertainty about the future of Roundup Ready alfalfa is leading to confusion in the seed industry, said Beth Nelson, president of the National Alfalfa & Forage Alliance.
With so much seed in storage but no definite timeline for its eventual release, growers are unsure how to anticipate demand, she said. "It is starting to cause a hardship, particularly with our seed producers."
The Center for Food Safety, an environmental group that opposed the crop's full deregulation in court, has not yet reviewed Forage Genetics' proposal, said George Kimbrell, its attorney.
Even so, Kimbrell said he's pleased with the regulatory process that seems to be emerging after the Supreme Court decision.
APHIS recently proposed partial deregulation measures for genetically engineered sugar beets, which are under review.
Previously, APHIS had a tendency to wash its hands of biotech crops after they had been deregulated, he said.
Partial deregulation at least ensures continued oversight, said Kimbrell. "I think it's a dramatic improvement in the management of these crops."