Roundup Ready alfalfa planting seed could be back on the U.S. market by the end of January as expected and in time for spring planting.

However, USDA may attach more regulatory strings to it than there is baling twine on three-wire bales stacked 10-feet high on a set of doubles.

Many were expecting USDA to deregulate planting of RR alfalfa when it announced the final and long-awaited Environmental Impact Statement ordered by the courts. However, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack put a knot in that notion when he said USDA may place draconian restrictions on where RR alfalfa seed and forage can be grown.

Those recommended restrictions would have a major impact on California, Arizona and other major Western forage and seed producing states (Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming).

For example, if USDA decides to go with a deregulated — yet regulated — scenario, RR alfalfa forage could not be grown in counties where RR alfalfa seed is produced.

Another part of the “deregulation with geographic restrictions and isolation distances” requires 5 miles between GT alfalfa seed production fields and conventional alfalfa. This is incalculably more than is now required for certified seed production.

The California Crop Improvement Association requires only 900 feet of isolation for foundation seed production and just 165 feet for certified seed fields and another variety of alfalfa.

California produces 9 percent of the nation’s alfalfa, harvesting more than 7 million tons annually. Imperial, Kern, Tulare, Merced, and Fresno are the leading alfalfa producing counties in the state.

85 percent of the 80 million pounds of alfalfa seed produced in U.S. each year comes from California, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Nevada.

A look at the most recent statistics for Fresno and Imperial counties show just how dramatic those regulations would be. Both are among the largest alfalfa seed producing counties in the state. Together they produce about 30,000 acres of alfalfa seed annually. Collectively they also produce alfalfa hay from almost 200,000 acres of alfalfa forage annually.

Under the USDA geographic restrictions scenario, RR alfalfa seed production would be banned from those counties, representing a significant loss of income for farmers since RR alfalfa is expected to be in great demand when it goes back on the market. When RR alfalfa goes back on the market, demand for non-biotech alfalfa is expected to drop and that could also cost farmers in Fresno and Imperial counties millions in lost revenue.

A critical step nonetheless

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.”

Implications for all biotech crops

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.