In a decision that prompted the promise of an immediate legal challenge, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has announced that it will grant non-regulated status to genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa. According to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, “After conducting a thorough and transparent examination of alfalfa through a multi-alternative environmental impact statement (EIS) and several public comment opportunities, APHIS [the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service] has determined that Roundup Ready alfalfa is as safe as traditionally bred alfalfa.” The agency’s Record of Decision concludes that “alfalfa events J101 and J163 do not pose a greater plant pest risk than other conventional alfalfa varieties.”

The House Agriculture Committee conducted a public forum January 20, 2011, to discuss matters relating to the USDA’s anticipated action on GE alfalfa’s deregulation. The agency had proposed several options, including partially deregulating GE alfalfa and establishing isolation distances and geographic limits on where the crop is grown. According to Vilsack, this option “mirrors a healthy and productive conversation between GE, non-GE and organic interests that is already underway in the industry and continues to evolve.”

Republican House members, including committee chair Frank Lucas (Okla.), expressed their concerned about the “increasingly troublesome delays” in the regulatory approval process for GE crops. Lucas also emphasized that USDA’s authority over GE crops and plants does not extend to “rhetorical concerns advanced by activist groups.” Because USDA determined that GE alfalfa does not pose a quantifiable plant pest risk, Lucas contended, “This should be the end of the debate. A product that has been repeatedly found to be safe should be deregulated.” Lucas argued that the partial deregulation option was developed “to prevent future lawsuits,” and as such “is a political objective … outside the scope of legal authority.”

The Center for Food Safety, which filed the lawsuit that led to a court order requiring USDA’s reconsideration of the GE crop’s regulated status in light of potential environmental impacts, has issued a statement indicating that it will file an “immediate legal challenge to USDA’s flawed assessment.” Its executive director said, “USDA has become a rogue agency in its regulation of biotech crops and its decision to appease the few companies who seek to benefit from this technology comes despite increasing evidence that GE alfalfa will threaten the rights of farmers and consumers, as well as damage the environment.” The center contends that the decision to allow the unlimited, nationwide commercial planting of a GE crop “places the entire burden for preventing contamination on non-GE farmers, with no protections for food producers, consumers and exporters.” See House Agriculture Committee Press Release, January 20, 2011; USDA News Release and Center for Food Safety Press Release, January 27, 2011.