While the sudden left turn by the department in the final RR alfalfa EIS caught many off guard, Mark McCaslin, president of Forage Genetics International, co-developer of RR alfalfa, said it “marks an important, critical step to bringing RRA back to the U.S. market and ensuring growers have access to this technology, which will lower their costs and increase their profitability."

Publication of the EIS satisfies a 9th Circuit Court ruling that required the EIS be conducted, and enables the USDA to make a decision about deregulation of RRA. There is a minimum 30-day period required between publication of the EIS and a deregulation decision by the agency. No commercial activity is allowed until and unless the USDA issues a decision deregulating RRA.

Vilsack said the department will choose between “two co-preferred alternatives” within those 30 days.

These alternatives are total deregulation or deregulation with geographic restrictions and isolation distances to “protect the production of non-GE alfalfa seed.”

Either way, RR alfalfa will go on the market in 2011 unless the anti-biotech element gets another injunction. If the regulatory rich scenario is adopted by USDA, sales could be limited.

”In selecting two options, we now have a final EIS that presents and evaluates alternatives that we believe are sound and applicable in the real world,” Vilsack said.

To help USDA select one of the two alternatives, Vilsack wants groups involved in RR alfalfa to meet with him “in the very near future to start a dialogue I hope will help resolve the problems we all face together. I think we are at a critical juncture in terms of regulating the products of GE agriculture, and at the same time supporting other segments of production.” Industry sources a meeting is scheduled for Monday at USDA to see if the department can broker “co-existence.”

“This final EIS is a first step toward looking at the ways we can achieve effective coexistence between all sectors of agriculture. It's a conversation that needs to happen now and we are not going to shy away from having it,” he added.

“We see a key role for each of the sectors (biotech agriculture, organic and non-biotech) in meeting our global and domestic food needs, increasing sustainability, and enhancing farm profitability and economic development. All three segments are vital ... All three sectors should be able to thrive together.”

“We do not have a preconceived notion of how best to strengthen coexistence. We will, however, partner with all those who want to roll up their sleeves and work with us to find common sense solutions to today's challenges. And we will do so openly and transparently.”