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Green light again for GM alfalfa in the USA

(21 January 2010) In the USA, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) intends to permit the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) alfalfa once more. This recommendation is based on a newly-completed environmental impact assessment. Year-long legal conflicts were antecedent.

The cultivation approval of herbicide-tolerant GM alfalfa issued in 2005 was revoked in 2007 after a Californian court ordered the thorough environmental impact assessment. Diverse environmental groups and consumer associations had filed suit against the approval. The plaintiffs accused the administration of insufficient investigation with regard to possible environmental damage, such as may occur through outcrossing with conventional plants or wild relatives as well as through the spread of resistant weeds.

The GM alfalfa was developed by the agro-biotechnology firm Monsanto and displays tolerance to herbicide containing the active ingredient glyphosate (RoundupReady).

By court ordinance, the cultivation of GM alfalfa was subject to strict constraints: for example, fields intended for planting required approval from the agricultural authority. Special obligations applied to the transport, storage and labelling of the harvest. Monsanto filed high-level suits against these constraints and negotiations are expected this year.
In the meanwhile, the UDSA has completed the environmental impact assessment ordered by the court. The report of 1,500 pages was published shortly before Christmas. The public may raise objections until the 16th of February. The report concludes that environmental damage, such as problems caused by new or more strongly emerging weeds, is “unlikely”. The USDA recommends that the unconditional cultivation of GM alfalfa be permitted.

In the USA, alfalfa is also known as ‘lucerne’ and is the fourth most cultivated plant with regard to planted area. It is grown in almost all federal states, occupies 9 million hectares and is used as fodder for milk cows and feed cattle. However, alfalfa harvest often is contaminated with wild plants, which results in a reduction of fodder quality with regard to taste, energy content and nutritional value. Through the presence of weeds, materials enter fodder that may be detrimental to the health of domesticated animals.

The system comprised of herbicide-tolerant GM alfalfa and the suitable complementary herbicide is intended to facilitate the effective control of undesirable weeds. Like all legumes, alfalfa is able with the aid of bacteria to extract nitrogen from the air and the use of nitrogen fertiliser therefore is not necessary. In 2006, GM alfalfa was grown on an area of between 80,000 and 100,000 hectares in the USA.

Legal processes also have taken place in the meanwhile on the subject of GM sugar beets, which have been approved in the USA since 2005 and which were planted on 450,000 hectares in 2009. In similarity to the case of GM alfalfa, an alliance of diverse environmental groups submitted a complaint to the highest court. They intend to force the agricultural authority to conduct an environmental impact assessment for herbicide-tolerant sugar beet as well. A decision may be expected later in the course of the year.  


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