Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced on Thursday that he would authorize the unrestricted commercial cultivation of genetically modified alfalfa, setting aside a controversial compromise that had generated stiff opposition.
In making the decision, Mr. Vilsack pulled back from a novel proposal that would have restricted the growing of genetically engineered alfalfa to protect organic farmers from so-called biotech contamination. That proposal drew criticism at a recent Congressional hearing and in public forums where Mr. Vilsack outlined the option.
Mr. Vilsack said Thursday that his department would take other measures, like conducting research and promoting dialogue, to make sure that pure, nonengineered alfalfa seed would remain available.
“We want to expand and preserve choice for farmers,” he told reporters. “We think the decision reached today is a reflection of our commitment to choice and trust.”
Mr. Vilsack in recent months has been calling for coexistence among growers of genetically engineered crops, organic farmers and nonorganic farmers growing crops that have not been genetically altered.
Organic farmers can lose sales if genetic engineering is detected in their crops, which occurs through cross-pollination from a nearby field or through intermingling of seeds. And exports of nonorganic but nonengineered crops to certain countries can be jeopardized if genetically engineered material is detected in significant amounts.
The genetically modified crop — developed by Monsanto and Forage Genetics, an alfalfa seed company that is owned by the Land O’Lakes farming and dairy cooperative — contains a gene that makes the plant resistant to the herbicide Roundup. That allows farmers to spray the chemical to kill weeds without hurting the crop.
Alfalfa is grown mostly to make hay fed to dairy cows and horses. More than 20 million acres are grown in the United States; it is the nation’s fourth-largest crop by acreage, behind corn, soybeans and wheat, with a value of about $8 billion. About 1 percent of alfalfa is organic.
In deciding whether to approve the genetically engineered alfalfa, the Agriculture Department was considering restricting areas where the crop could be planted. That, Mr. Vilsack argued, would help prevent litigation, like the lawsuits that have already delayed the approval of genetically altered alfalfa and sugar beets.
“The rapid adoption of G.E. crops has clashed with the rapid expansion of demand for organic and other non-G.E. products,” Mr. Vilsack wrote in a letter issued by his department in December. “This clash led to litigation and uncertainty. Such litigation will potentially lead to the courts’ deciding who gets to farm their way and who will be prevented from doing so.”
But the proposal ran into considerable opposition in Congress and from some farm groups and biotechnology companies.
They argued that since the department’s environmental impact statement had concluded that growing the alfalfa would be safe, the government was obligated to allow it to be grown without restrictions.
Introducing restrictions based on economic consequences of pollen drift “politicizes the regulatory process and goes beyond your statutory authority,” Representative Frank D. Lucas, Republican of Oklahoma, who is the new chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, wrote to Mr. Vilsack on Jan. 19, before holding a hearing on the proposals the next day. The letter was also written by Republican Senators Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Pat Roberts of Kansas.
At the news conference on Thursday, Mr. Vilsack at one point said that the department did have the authority to restrict planting. But at another point, he said of the decision to allow unrestricted planting: “We are working within the statutory and regulatory system we have available to us.”
Organic farmers and food companies said they were not pleased with the decision on Thursday. “It was disappointing, but as you know, there is a tremendous amount of pressure here,” said George Siemon, chief executive of Organic Valley, the nation’s largest organic dairy cooperative. He said federal oversight was needed to keep organic crops free of genetically engineered material.
Critics of planting restrictions said they were concerned that the approach used in alfalfa would eventually be extended to other crops, causing restrictions on the growing of corn, soybeans and cotton, the vast majority of which are already genetically engineered.
“It’s like a Pandora’s box,” said Keith Menchey, manager of science and environmental issues for the National Cotton Council of America.
Critics also said that restricting the growing of alfalfa would undermine Washington’s efforts to persuade other countries to accept genetically modified crops.
The Agriculture Department first approved the commercial planting of the genetically engineered alfalfa in 2005. But some environmental groups and alfalfa seed producers sued.
In 2007, a federal judge rescinded the approval, saying the department had not adequately assessed the environmental impacts of the biotech crop, including the possible effect on organic and conventional farmers. The judge ordered the department to do a full environmental impact statement and banned further planting of the engineered seeds. The Supreme Court in 2010 overturned the ban on planting, but did not reinstate the approval of the crop, so no new seeds could be planted.
The final environmental impact statement, 2,300 pages long, was released last month. It said that the department would decide between two options: allowing unrestricted commercial growing or partly restricted growing.
The partial restriction would have prohibited growing the biotech alfalfa on about 20 percent of current alfalfa acreage nationwide, and about 50 percent in Western states, where most alfalfa seed is produced, according to Forage Genetics.
Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, the advocacy group that organized the lawsuit against the Agriculture Department, said his group would soon ask the judge in the case to rule that the environmental impact statement was still inadequate.
“It’s clear that Vilsack caved to pressure from the biotech industry and Monsanto,” he said. “We’ll be back in court seeking to vacate this approval, as we have done in the past.”