A U.S. Department of Agriculture decision on biotech alfalfa could mark an unprecedented federal policy change for genetically engineered crops, more than 15 years after their introduction to American agriculture.

The debate centers on biotech alfalfa, designed to resist a popular herbicide. USDA approved the product in 2005, after finding that the product did not present a plant pest risk under the Plant Protection Act, and after conducting an environmental assessment under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

But soon after its deregulation and commercialization, and broad adoption by American farmers, opponents claimed that the USDA failed to conduct a full analysis of potential environmental impacts under NEPA and filed lawsuits to stop its planting. In 2007, a Federal judge called for a more lengthy review and preparation of an environmental impact statement (more detailed than the environmental assessment it conducted) from the USDA. 

The Department’s newest environmental review, issued on Dec. 23, 2010, again found no evidence of harm from biotech alfalfa. As a part of this environmental impact analysis, USDA proposed three options for action: 1) No deregulation of GE alfalfa; 2) complete deregulation of GT alfalfa; or 3) Partial deregulation of alfalfa with certain government mandated measures to segregate GE production from organic production. Under NEPA the public is granted a 30-day period of public review, which is drawing input from both biotech supporters and critics. Some of the mandatory conditions suggested by USDA include: 1) prohibiting planting of GE alfalfa in certain parts of the country, and 2) establishing excessive buffer zones between GE and organic production sites.

A decision in favor of partial deregulation with planting restrictions would render about 20 percent of the alfalfa acres in the U.S. off limits to farmers wanting to plant biotech alfalfa. The number increases to 50 percent for alfalfa production in Western states. Not only does USDA not have legal authority to impose mandatory conditions when there is no plant pest risk, but such action would also set a precedent to use criteria other than science to drive the decisions about future approvals and even make products already deregulated vulnerable to similar challenges in the judicial system. 

The result would be a significant dampening of the positive impact biotechnology crops have contributed to employment opportunities and increased productivity across America’s rural economy.  

The pending USDA decision, expected to occur before the end of January, raises important questions about the future of agriculture biotechnology. For example, what is the greatest challenge to a science-based regulatory system? What government regulatory policy, if any, is needed to facilitate bringing new biotechnology innovations to market more quickly?