Amid court pressure, USDA eyes GMO alfalfa compromise

KANSAS CITY/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Amid complaints of environmental harm and pressure from a federal court, U.S. agriculture regulators are considering a compromise approval for genetically altered alfalfa that would allow the crop to be grown with certain restrictions aimed at protecting non-GMO crops, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on Thursday.

The move marks a shift in policy at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to give more consideration to how genetically modified crops impact organic and non-genetically altered crops, and sets the stage for “co-existence” considerations for other biotech crops going forward.

The department is considering either unrestricted approval or approval with restrictions for the “Roundup Ready” alfalfa, which has been genetically altered to tolerate herbicide treatments, Vilsack said. A third option - to leave the crop as a regulated, unapproved crop - is not preferred, he said.

U.S. regulators have come under fire over the last few years from environmentalists, farmer and consumer groups for approving a range of genetically altered crops that opponents say harm the environment and contaminate conventional crops.

Critics have accused USDA of acting as a rubber stamp for biotech companies, giving little oversight to the high-tech crops, and doing little to stop the contamination of conventional crops or the development of “super weeds” tied to heavy use of herbicide-resistant GMO crops.

Federal courts have ruled that USDA illegally approved both biotech alfalfa and biotech sugarbeets, both developed by seed giant Monsanto Co. and have ordered bans on both crops until USDA completes thorough environmental impact assessments.

Monsanto had no immediate comment Thursday.

Vilsack said his department was taking heed of both courts and critics but said USDA believes the biotech crops are safe and are needed to help increase food production. He acknowledged that the department has not kept pace with the rapid technological advancements of genetically altered crops and their environmental and economic impacts, however.

“Our goal... first and foremost, is to recognize and consider the many concerns that we have heard from all segments of agriculture,” said Vilsack. “We are equally committed to finding solutions that support not only the developers and users of biotechnology products, but growers who rely on purity in the non-genetically engineered seed supply.”

Opponents said USDA’s determination to approve biotech alfalfa in some fashion was disappointing.

“We’re disappointed that the preferred option was not to maintain this as an unapproved crop... until they’ve really understood what impacts this really does have,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of The Center for Food Safety, which sued USDA over both approval of Roundup Ready alfalfa and Roundup Ready sugarbeets.

“There are so many questions right now about biological contamination by these crops,” said Kimbrell. “This seems to me an attempt to circumvent what they need to do. This is a stop-gap solution to get these crops in the ground.”

Meanwhile, the Biotechnology Industry Organization said they want full deregulation without restrictions.

“We hope the department will decide on full deregulation since they have already done so much environmental assessment of the crop previously,” said BIO spokeswoman Karen Batra.

More than 50 U.S. lawmakers have demanded that the biotech alfalfa be kept out of farm fields. The lawmakers said the GMO alfalfa could spell disaster for the organic dairy industry by contaminating the feed fed to organic dairy cows.

Roundup Ready alfalfa was approved by USDA in 2005 and was planted in limited quantities around the United States for a short time. But a lawsuit by environmental groups and some seed companies against USDA in 2006 successfully forced the agency to rescind its approval after a federal court ruled USDA had not done a thorough environmental review as legally required.

Vilsack said Thursday that USDA now has completed that thorough review and the preferred options are either deregulation or deregulation accompanied by a combination of isolation distances and geographic restrictions on the production of GE alfalfa seed and, in some locations, hay.

Vilsack said it will take comments for 30 days on the plan and will meet with stakeholders on Monday. Vilsack said he hopes to have a decision in place to allow planting in the spring.

Alfalfa is the fourth-largest U.S. field crop grown on about 23 million acres in the U.S. annually. It is pollinated largely by honey bees, making it difficult to isolate biotech alfalfa from conventional varieties.

Reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City and Chuck Abbott in Washington; editing by Sofina Mirza-Reid