Monday, January 31, 2011

USDA Decides GM-Alfalfa Is No Little Rascal

Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) is one of the most important crop plants in the world. Its uses range from cattle forage to human food. Worldwide, it is cultivated more than any other legume crop. Monsanto Corporation developed a patented genetically modified ("GM") variety of alfalfa - Roundup Ready Alfalfa - that is resistant to glyphosate (N-(phosphonomethyl) glycine), a powerful herbicide used to eliminate weeds from agricultural fields.

As discussed earlier at LEXVIVO, Roundup Ready Alfalfa has inspired considerable legal controversy - controversy that has already reached the U.S. Supreme Court. On January 27, 2011, the United States Department of Agriculture ("USDA"), after completing an Environmental Impact Statement, announced in a press release that it has opted for full deregulation of Roundup Ready Alfalfa.  This decision will place no more restrictions on Monsanto's GM-alfalfa than on non-GM varieties.  As the USDA's press release relates,
"After conducting a thorough and transparent examination of alfalfa through a multi-alternative environmental impact statement (EIS) and several public comment opportunities, APHIS has determined that Roundup Ready alfalfa is as safe as traditionally bred alfalfa," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.
This decision comes on the heels of a January 19, 2011, letter that U.S. Representative Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and U.S. Senators Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) sent to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, warning that taking into account non-scientific factors in the regulation of GM-alfalfa would exceed the statutory authority granted to his agency by the Plant Protection Act:
It is unfortunate that those critical of the technology have decided to litigate and as you rightly point out that courts may unwisely interfere in normal commerce. However, the alternative you propose and include in the EIS is equally disturbing since it politicizes the regulatory process and goes beyond your statutory authority and indeed Congress’ intent in the Plant Protection Act (PPA). The PPA requires the Secretary to make a scientific determination if the product under review is a plant pest (7 U.S.C. 7711(c)(3)). If the final decision is that the product is not a plant pest, nor would the movement of the product in question impose the risk of dissemination of a plant pest, then USDA has no authority to impose further restrictions (7 U.S.C. 7712(a)).
Further legal challenges of GM-alfalfa are certain, especially from organic farmers who worry that GM-pollen will infect the their non-GM crops.  As a signal that it takes the growing war between advocates of agricultural biotechnology and organic farming seriously, USDA has decided to resurrect its Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture and the National Genetic Resources Advisory Committee to
tackle a broad range of issues, from ensuring the availability of high quality seed, to helping ensure that growers have access to the best tools available to support their production choices, to whether risk management and indemnification options can play a role.
Victory in this battle goes to agricultural biotechnology, but the wider war will assuredly continue.  In the meantime, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations ("FAO") has reported that food prices reached near-record heights in 2010.