Window closing on fall planting decisions
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
The USDA is unlikely to issue interim measures that would allow farmers to plant glyphosate-resistant "Roundup Ready" alfalfa by this autumn.
On June 21 the U.S. Supreme Court lifted an injunction that had halted most production of the genetically engineered crop in 2007. However, that ruling did not actually re-commercialize it.
Prior to issuing an injunction against the crop, a federal judge found that USDA's deregulation of Roundup Ready alfalfa was unlawful. That decision, which effectively returned the crop to regulated status, was not affected by the Supreme Court's ruling.
Monsanto Co., which developed Roundup Ready alfalfa, said in June that it expected USDA to partially deregulate the crop soon -- as the Supreme Court ruling cleared the agency to do.
"Our goal is to have everything in place for growers to plant in fall 2010," said Steve Welker, the firm's alfalfa business lead, in a June 21 statement.
But the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has not yet decided whether to issue any interim deregulatory measures, said agency spokesman Andre Bell.
The agency is focusing on completing a comprehensive environmental review of the crop, as ordered by the federal judge, said Bell.
In late 2009, a preliminary version of that review, known as an environmental impact statement, recommended once again deregulating Roundup Ready alfalfa.
A final EIS would need to come to the same conclusion before farmers could resume planting the crop without restriction.
Monsanto has acknow-ledged that the potential for immediate partial deregulation is dim, but the company remains optimistic about the agency's ultimate plans.
"While the 2010 window for fall planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa is closing, USDA has the authority in light of the recent Supreme Court case to take action," said Welker in an e-mail. "Farmers should have the choice to plant Roundup Ready alfalfa, and we remain hopeful that USDA can complete its review in the near future and reach a decision on this issue."
Even if the agency had proposed interim measures right after the Supreme Court decision, it would have been difficult to get them approved in time for the fall planting, said Mark McCaslin, president of Forage Genetics International, which partnered with Monsanto to commercialize the crop.
Partial deregulation would still be subjected to an environmental assessment and public comment period, he said. "All those steps would have to happen."
McCaslin said he hopes USDA will finish the EIS by the end of the year. If that process runs into legal or political roadblocks, partial deregulation would offer a remedy, he said.
"We're continuing to entertain that as an alternative," McCaslin said.
Mark Wagoner, an alfalfa seed grower from Touchet, Wash., said he hopes the USDA will allow farmers grow the crop by spring 2011, the next opportunity for planting.
However, Wagoner said he's concerned any deregulatory actions will encounter further litigation from activist groups. Across the U.S., alfalfa is losing ground to corn and soybeans, for which new transgenic traits are available, he said.
"We're stuck with 1970s and 1980s plant breeding," said Wagoner. "We've been losing market share. We need biotech traits to stay competitive."
George Kimbrell, attorney for the anti-biotech group Center for Food Safety, said he can't comment on possible future litigation.
It remains to be seen how the USDA chooses to regulate Roundup Ready alfalfa in the wake of the Supreme Court decision, he said.
"It still can't be planted unless the USDA comes up with a proposal, at which point we have the opportunity to challenge it," Kimbrell said. "They're in a process of having to come to grips with a new reality, in which they have to analyze these impacts."