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GM alfalfa cultivation with restrictions to facilitate coexistence

Biotechnology in the USA: A policy shift on coexistence issues?

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is considering including binding coexistence measures as part of its new environmental impact assessment for GM alfalfa for the first time. In future, there could be regional restrictions and minimum isolation distances from seed fields. The final decision will be taken in January.

Tom Vilsack, Secretary USDA

US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack: “We are equally committed to finding solutions that support not only the developers and users of biotechnology products, but growers who rely on purity in the non-genetically engineered seed supply.”

Alfalfa is grown as a fodder crop for dairy cows and beef cattle in almost all the states in the USA and on over 9 million hectares. However, frequent contamination with wild plants lowers the quality and suitability of the feed. Herbicide-tolerant GM alfalfa used in conjunction with the complementary herbicide is designed to control undesirable weeds more effectively.

The herbicide-tolerant alfalfa developed by Monsanto was banned by a court in 2007, since it had been approved without adequate assessment of the potential environmental risks or socio-economic impacts. After a Californian court forced a withdrawal of the approval for GM sugar beet last year, the US approval system has been under immense pressure and may now be at a crossroads.

According to US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the steep increase in the cultivation of GM crops in recent years has also come up against a growing demand for organic and non-GM food, and this has led to uncertainty and legal battles. In his view, instead of carrying out these battles in court, it would be more constructive to look for compromises that take account of different agricultural production methods. This is why options like the introduction of coexistence measures are now being considered.

The environmental impact assessment confirmed that GM alfalfa can outcross to conventional and organic alfalfa. Cross-pollination takes place via pollinating insects, mainly bees, over distances of up to ten kilometres. This is not as relevant for the production of alfalfa hay because the hay is normally harvested before the seeds ripen, so even if the plants are pollinated with GM pollen, there could be no propagation of GM plants. However, to prevent conventional alfalfa seed fields being contaminated with GM alfalfa, the USDA is proposing various coexistence measures:

  • In federal states with no alfalfa seed fields there would be no restrictions on the cultivation of GM alfalfa for hay production. This currently applies to 27 states.

  • In federal states that produce less than one per cent of the total US alfalfa seed (currently 14 states), fields with GM alfalfa for hay production located within around 50 metres of seed fields would have to be harvested at the start of the flowering period (no more than 10% of the plants would be permitted to bloom).

  • GM alfalfa would not be approved for cultivation in federal states with a higher proportion of alfalfa seed production (currently nine states).
  • GM alfalfa seed production would be permitted only in states that have previously grown alfalfa seed. However, there would have to be an isolation distance of at least eight kilometres (five miles) between these fields and conventional seed fields.

In addition, it is proposed that seed producers be made responsible for observing and monitoring such measures. This also includes training programmes for farmers, seed labelling and a reporting obligation vis-à-vis the authorities.

The USDA will publish its final proposal once it has evaluated the coexistence round table debate held on 20 December last year, and more than 200,000 comments submitted by the public. A decision will be taken 30 days later.

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