Although this issue revolves around alfalfa, it could have far-reaching precedent-setting implications for corn, soybeans, cotton and other biotech crops in the U.S. if the department opts to put geographic restrictions on RR alfalfa.

U.S. farmers account for 48 percent of the world’s biotech crop plantings with 158 million acres. These crops are largely unregulated.

In a press conference, Vilsack was asked if he would re-evaluate existing biotech crops in the wake of the proposed regulation for biotech alfalfa. He said would not “go back” to look at any already approved biotech crops.

More than 20 million acres of alfalfa are farmed in the U.S. Alfalfa ranks fourth on the list of most widely grown crops by acreage, behind corn, soybeans, and wheat, and is ranked third among agricultural crops in terms of value.

Here are some more details of the “regulatory alternative:”

  • RR alfalfa forage fields may not be harvested for seed.
  • RR alfalfa seed bag labeling and seed identification (seed colorant) would be required.
  • In Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Alaska, and Hawaii there are no restrictions on planting GT alfalfa for forage production.
  • Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Texas produce limited alfalfa seed. In those states, RR forage alfalfa planted within 165 feet of a seed field must be harvested at or before 10 percent bloom.
  • In all the major seed producing states (California, Arizona Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming), growers must maintain isolation distances of 5 miles between RR alfalfa seed fields and conventional alfalfa seed fields.Seed fields will be identified by GPS and will be included in the annual report to USDA. Location data will be made publicly available.
  • Equipment use for RR alfalfa seed production must be cleaned before use on other crops, not just RR alfalfa.

"When the USDA makes a decision about deregulation of RRA, Forage Genetics will be ready to sell RRA seed to growers," McCaslin said. “American farmers are one step closer to having the opportunity to benefit from the advantages RRA provides."

However, that final step may come with a bunch of potholes.