January 27, 2011 / 9:33 PM / 8 years ago

UPDATE 3-U.S. farmers get approval to plant GMO alfalfa

 * USDA approves GMO alfalfa without restrictions
 * Farmers can plant biotech alfalfa this spring
 * Vilsack says no doubts about GMO crop safety
 * USDA will research genetics to prevent GMO contamination
 * Opponents pledge to sue to stop planting
 (Adds details, background)
 By Carey Gillam and Christopher Doering
 KANSAS CITY/WASHINGTON, Jan 27 (Reuters) - The United
States said on Thursday farmers could proceed with planting
genetically altered alfalfa without any of the restrictions
that opponents say are crucial to protect organic and
conventional farm fields from contamination.
 The decision, closely watched by supporters and protesters
around the world for its potential implications on biotech crop
regulation, was seen as a boon to biotech crop developers and
comes as research into additional biotech crops accelerates.
 But opponents of biotech crops were disappointed.
 The U.S. Agriculture Department had signaled last month
that it might forge a first-ever compromise approval with a
range of restrictions for planting, but there were no such
conditions in the plan announced Thursday.
 The USDA said the decision, made by its Animal and Plant
Health Inspection Service, was made after analysis of various
economic and environmental factors, and allows GMO farmers to
get their crop in the ground this spring.
 "After conducting a thorough and transparent examination of
alfalfa ... APHIS has determined that Roundup Ready alfalfa is
as safe as traditionally bred alfalfa," Agriculture Secretary
Tom Vilsack said.
 Alfalfa is the fourth-largest U.S. field crop grown, worth
roughly $8 billion to $10 billion and grown on about 20 million
acres as food for dairy cattle and other livestock.
 The decision Thursday to allow planting of genetically
altered version comes after years of court battles with
 Developed by biotech leader Monsanto Co MON.N to tolerate
treatments of Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, "Roundup Ready"
alfalfa is preferred by many farmers because it makes killing
weeds easier.
 But opponents, including conventional and organic farmers,
say the biotech alfalfa can easily contaminate their crops
because alfalfa is pollinated largely by honey bees, making it
difficult to isolate GMO fields from non-GMO strains.
 Organic dairy farmers who feed their cows alfalfa say the
biotech crop can kill their business.
 Opponents also say increased use of herbicide is
translating to increased weed resistance, and the rise of
"super weeds."
 A consortium of opponents led by the Center for Food Safety
previously won a court decision against USDA for the
government's failure to thoroughly account for the
environmental and economic implications of the biotech alfalfa
when it approved the crop for the first time in 2005.
 A federal court ordered USDA to rescind its approval until
the government thoroughly evaluated the impact of the crop.
 Vilsack said Thursday the government has now done so, but
opponents said they will sue again.
 "It is very disappointing. It appears they just capitulated
to the demands of the corporations," said Andrew Kimbrell,
executive director of the Center for Food Safety, which has led
litigation efforts against USDA. "They really are throwing
conventional farmers under the bus."
 Kimbrell said his group would immediately seek a court
order vacating the government's approval.
 While he acknowledged the concerns, Vilsack said U.S.
farmers must have the "choice" to plant GMO alfalfa as well as
conventional and organic varieties, and he said USDA would
implement a series of measures to encourage trust between all
the parties.
 "I'm trying to bring people together," he said. "This set
of actions, it seems to me, provides opportunities for
preservation of choice in agriculture, creates a set of forms
for building trusting relationships that could lead us to
better policy in the future," said Vilsack.
 Vilsack said USDA would promote research into how genetics
might prevent contamination along with research designed to
improve detection of any contamination that does occur.
 He said USDA would also set up two advisory committees to
try to help ensure availability of high-quality seed, as well
as set up programs to try to protect the purity of alfalfa
 USDA will encourage voluntary, third-party audits and
verification of "industry-led stewardship initiatives," Vilsack
 "We welcome the Secretary's commitment to expand U.S.
agriculture, to keep pace with the latest scientific
developments, and to take into account the needs of all
producers and all types of production," said Jim Greenwood,
chief executive of the Biotechnology Industry Organization.
 Opponents said the studies and advisory groups were a good
step, but should be done before approval of the crop, not
 "The USDA has also announced a series of measures to try to
understand the way that GE alfalfa could contaminate other
crops," said Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah
Hauter. "This is the first time the agency has acknowledged
these issues, and, unfortunately, these steps should have been
taken before the agency decided to release this crop into the
food supply, not after."
 (Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Walter Bagley)

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