U.S. alfalfa decision faces court threat

Jan. 28, 2011 at 4:30 AM
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 28 (UPI) -- Washington is endangering consumer and farmer rights and hurting the environment by green-lighting genetically modified alfalfa, a public-health group said.

Executive Director Andrew Kimbrell of the non-profit Center for Food Safety vowed to seek a court order immediately reversing and voiding the U.S. Agriculture Department's approval of "Roundup Ready" alfalfa -- the fourth Roundup Ready crop approved for U.S. commercial-farming use, after soybeans, corn and cotton.

"We will be back in court representing the interest of farmers, preservation of the environment and consumer choice," Kimbrell said.

The department's decision "comes despite increasing evidence that (genetically altered) alfalfa will threaten the rights of farmers and consumers, as well as damage the environment," he said.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Thursday he would permit unrestricted commercial cultivation of alfalfa that's been genetically modified to survive applications of the Monsanto Co. herbicide Roundup, allowing spraying of the chemical to kill weeds without hurting the crop. The decision lets farmers begin planting this year's alfalfa crop grown from the biotech seeds.

The department indicated last month it might create a first-ever compromise, with a range of restrictions for planting. But the department dropped the conditions after the proposal drew criticism at a recent congressional hearing and in public forums at which Vilsack outlined the option, The New York Times said.

Vilsack said Thursday his department would take other measures, such as conducting research and promoting dialogue, to make sure pure, non-engineered alfalfa seed would remain available.

Organic and conventional farmers say they can lose sales if biotech alfalfa is detected in their crops, which occurs through cross-pollination from a nearby field or through intermingling of seeds. Alfalfa is pollinated largely by honey bees.

The Agriculture Department is expected to decide next week whether to issue a new approval for genetically modified sugar beets in time for planting this year, The Wall Street Journal said.

Alfalfa is grown mostly to make hay for dairy cows and horses. More than 20 million acres are grown in the United States, making it the No. 4 U.S. crop by acreage after corn, soybeans and wheat, with a value of about $8 billion.

About 1 percent of alfalfa is organic.

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