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USDA will allow planting of modified alfalfa

USDA will allow planting of modified alfalfa

The Agriculture Department is allowing widespread planting in the United States of genetically modified alfalfa, attempting to bring to a close a lengthy legal and regulatory process in which organic producers tried to curtail use of the modified seeds.
The decision announced Thursday is a blow to the organic foods industry, which complains that modified seeds can contaminate their organic crops through pollination and bring genetically modified foods into their fields.
The Agriculture Department has said the modified alfalfa _ used primarily for hay for cattle _ is safe, but some consumers do not want to eat foods derived from it, including milk or beef. The growing U.S. organic industry and its millions of consumers have long been wary of genetically modified seed companies such as Monsanto, citing the purity of natural seeds, the ethics of eating modified foods and possible environmental damage from creating new varieties of crops.
In Europe, such modified crops are often dismissed as "Frankenfoods" and are an issue of fierce public debate.
Alfalfa is used for livestock feed and can be planted early or late in the year. It is a major crop in the United States, grown on about 22 million acres.
Farmers who use the seeds say they boost their crop yields and help reduce prices for consumers in the grocery store. The biotech companies say they are doing their part voluntarily to restrict where their alfalfa crops are planted so they do not contaminate non-engineered crops.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had said in December that the department was considering, as one of several options, government restrictions on planting of the modified alfalfa, giving producers of organic and other non-engineered alfalfa hope. The department came under sharp criticism for that proposal from the genetically engineered-seed companies and Congress.
In a hearing last week, several members from farm states questioned the proposal, saying it politicized the regulatory process. Because the alfalfa is safe, its planting should be allowed, they argued.
Vilsack disagreed that the issue had been politicized, saying the department is simply trying to help two large agricultural industries, organics and biotech companies, peacefully coexist. He said Thursday the department will make other efforts to ensure that organic and other non-modified alfalfa seeds remain pure by doing additional research on preventing cross contamination of seeds and improving detection of that contamination. He said the department will make efforts to ensure that pure varieties of the alfalfa seeds are preserved.
The alfalfa decision has wound through the regulatory process and the courts. A 2007 federal court decision said the USDA had not given enough consideration to the effects of the modified alfalfa, and a judge placed an injunction on planting the crop. The U.S. Supreme Court said last year that decision had gone too far.
Several other USDA decisions on modified crops are coming soon, Vilsack said, including on modified sugar beets and corn amylase, which is made to produce ethanol fuel. But he insisted that each crop is unique and the decision to allow unrestricted planting of alfalfa is not necessarily a precedent for the others.
The alfalfa is genetically engineered to be resistant to the popular weed killer Roundup, so it can be used without hurting the crop.
Organic groups and farmers exporting to Europe, where genetically modified crops are unpopular, have staunchly opposed the development of such seeds.


Updated : 2021-05-11 15:02 GMT+08:00