Roundup Ready alfalfa planting seed will be on the market in time for spring planting season after the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) unexpectedly granted non-regulated status for the herbicide resistant forage crop.

The decision did not come with strings attached, and that surprised many in agriculture and disappointed radical environmental groups who have successfully stalled the sale of the genetically engineered forage crop for almost four years with lawsuits and challenges about how USDA regulates biotech crops. The radical groups thought their lawsuits were giving them some leverage at USDA. Vilsack proved them wrong.

The final no-restrictions decision was unexpected because a month ago Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack attempted to meld American agriculture and the anti-biotech element in a coexistence alliance. It was ill-fated almost from the beginning and only resulted in more of the same acrimony that has existed for the past 15 years since USDA approved the first biotech crops. The anti-biotech groups were hopeful Vilsack would impose what agriculture considered draconian and unworkable restrictions on where and how RR alfalfa forage and seed could be grown.

Vislack’s unprecedented effort to forge an alliance was viewed by both sides as a possible USDA policy shift away from pure science into a socio-economic realm where USDA has never gone before. Congress quickly got involved when the House Agriculture Committee called Vilsack on the carpet for the seemingly different direction USDA was heading.

His efforts with RR alfalfa sent shockwaves through all the major commodity crop groups in the U.S., fearful restrictions on RR alfalfa would spill over into other biotech crops.

Vilsack gave up on his coexistence idea and subsequently rejected all restrictions and went ahead and approved the outright sale of RR alfalfa seed.

Many growers were concerned the delay in reopening seed sales would results in high prices for the GE technology. However, Monsanto and Forage Genetics, developer of the technology, said it will be marketed with the same tech fee charged when a federal judge banned the sale of the seed almost four years ago. That will be $150 per 50-pound bag in the West and $125 per bag for areas east of the Rockies. Seeding rates range from 12 to 25 pounds per acre.

Mark McCaslin, president of Forage Genetics, developer of the RR alfalfa technology, said there is plenty of seed available from distributors for spring planting that is one to two months away.

There are more than 20 million acres of alfalfa planted in the U.S. It is the fourth largest crop in the nation. GE alfalfa is expected to follow the other three major crops where farmers have rapidly embraced biotechnology. 93 percent of the U.S. soybean crop is genetically engineered, 86 percent of the corn is biotech varieties and 93 percent of the cotton acreage is planted to GE trait varieties.

In 2009, 330 million acres of biotech crops were planted in 25 countries by 14 million farmers.