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U.S. considers restrictions on genetically modified alfalfa

December 16, 2010 |  3:44 pm

Biotech field In a move that is sure to have farmers and consumers alike taking note, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is -– for the first time –- weighing whether to restrict where and how genetically modified crops can be grown.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters Thursday that the agency was considering approving the planting of genetically altered alfalfa but placing geographical limits on the crop production to make sure it doesn’t contaminate nearby fields that are growing non-altered plants.

The news –- a turn-about of previous department policy -– means the USDA could place restrictions on the deregulation of Monsanto Co.’s Roundup Ready alfalfa seed technology, which was engineered to resist the widely used herbicide. Such possible restrictions are outlined in a court-ordered environmental review of the crop, which the department released Thursday. (The press release -- and a link to the report -- can be found here).

Such restrictions are important to the organic farming sector, whose business rests on selling consumers products that aren’t genetically engineered or altered. The potential shift in policy also comes as complaints mount against USDA over the environmental impact of genetically modified crops and criticism from a federal court.

Although the agency hasn’t made a final decision on alfalfa, Vilsack said during a news conference that it was important that USDA “recognize and consider the many concerns that we have heard from all segments of agriculture.”

Vilsack said his agency believes the biotech crops are safe and necessary to bolster food production at a time when the global population is rapidly growing. He acknowledged that farming technology has changed so rapidly that keeping up with the economic and environmental impacts of genetically modified crops has been challenging.

Yet he also said during a conference call with reporters that the department has yet to choose between the two alternatives it outlined in the review –- and that the agency may deregulate the alfalfa crop without any restrictions.

As of now, when the USDA has given its approval of genetically modified crops, such approval has not placed conditions on planting locations. And what the USDA decides to do with regards to alfalfa could quickly ripple out to other crops, including sugar beets, corn and soybeans.

Most of the corn and soybeans grown domestically are genetically modified. And the farming community is waiting to find out what it can, and cannot, plant when it comes to sugar beet seeds next year.

About 95% of the sugar beets harvested in 2010 were genetically modified. However, next year’s plantings have been caught up in a legal battle since August, when U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey White invalidated the government’s thumbs-up of U.S. farmers planting genetically modified sugar beet seeds.

Alfalfa, too, has seen its fair share of controversy: More than four dozen lawmakers are petitioning USDA to keep biotech alfalfa out of the fields, citing concerns that the crop could contaminate the feed given to organic dairy cows and economically devastate that industry.

--P.J. Huffstutter

Photo: Crop circle in a Canadian corn field, created by anti-biotech activists. Credit: PR Newswire