Effects of genetically engineered alfalfa cultivate a debate

By Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY
USA Today
Feb. 18, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO The government was premature in deregulating production of alfalfa that is genetically engineered to resist a weed-killing herbicide, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture should not have acted as it did in 2005 without assessing the environmental effect of crops genetically modified to resist the herbicide Roundup, ruled U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer of the Northern District of California. The suit against the USDA was filed by the anti-biotech Center for Food Safety, the Sierra Club and organic alfalfa (hay) farmers. It accused the USDA of violating federal law by not requiring the environmental assessment.

Opponents of biotech crops, which are genetically engineered to have certain qualities, such as resistance to weed killers, have expressed concerns that they could interbreed with wild plants and create herbicide-resistant weeds.

Alfalfa is the nation's fourth-largest crop and is fed to farm animals, especially dairy cattle.

"There's potential for these crops to contaminate non-genetically engineered alfalfa," says Will Rostov, senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety. This is particularly a concern for organic farmers, because genetically engineered plants cannot be sold as organic.

The Roundup Ready alfalfa cited in the suit was developed and sold by Forge Genetics of Minnesota, using technology from Monsanto. It allows growers to spray fields with Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, in which the chemical glyphosate is the active ingredient, killing weeds without hurting the alfalfa.

Monsanto submitted a detailed environmental analysis of the alfalfa to USDA, says company spokesman Chris Horner. "Reading the ruling, it's unclear how much of that was taken into consideration." All weeds built up resistance to herbicides over time, he says.

Breyer ruled that both sides must sit down together and propose remedies to him by Feb. 26.

Rostov says his group plans to push for an injunction on the planting, sale and distribution of Roundup Ready alfalfa until the USDA has done an impact assessment.

Only about 197,600 acres of the 22 million acres of the alfalfa grown in the USA in 2006 was genetically engineered, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications.

The USDA is "very committed to protecting the environment" and is evaluating the ruling, says spokeswoman Rachel Iadicicco.

However, even if the USDA does an environmental assessment, it's unclear that it would have any effect on whether or not Roundup Ready alfalfa can be sold.

The judge ruled that under the National Environmental Policy Act, the USDA must do an assessment if there was the potential for "a significant environmental impact."

But under the Plant Protection Act, the basis for USDA's regulatory authority, it can adopt regulations only to prevent the introduction and dissemination of plant pests.

"If they find that the only thing it does is cause organic farmers harm, that may be an environmental impact, but under the Plant Protection Act, it may not be something that (USDA) can take into consideration," says Greg Jaffe, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest's biotechnology project.

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