EUROPEANS are notoriously squeamish about genetically modified (GM) crops. In America, however, they reign supreme. Since farmers first planted GM soya in 1996, engineered crops have steadily conquered America’s vast farmland. Last year 93% of cotton and soya acres contained genetically engineered crops, as did 86% of corn acres. In the past the Agriculture Department (USDA) has placed relatively meagre limits on this expansion. This month, however, that may change.
Alfalfa, that humble feedstuff, is at the heart of an intense debate. The USDA will soon decide how to regulate Roundup Ready alfalfa, engineered by Monsanto to resist a chemical used to kill weeds. The department may allow GM alfalfa but, for the first time, set strict rules on the extent of planting allowed. This could be a model for the future, the biggest policy change for GM crops since their introduction. Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary, says that the issue is not whether GM alfalfa is safe—the USDA maintains that it is. Rather, the question is how regulations might help engineered crops exist beside conventional and organic ones. It is a fraught endeavour.
The rule on alfalfa aims to ease growing trouble, on the fields and in court. America’s farms have seen two divergent trends over the past 15 years: the rise of GM crops and, on a smaller scale, an expanding market for organic products. Theirs is not a peaceful relationship. Wind has an unfortunate tendency to blow GM seed into organic fields. Farmers, like all good Americans, are stubborn and litigious. Lawsuits about contaminated fields have moved through the courts. One such case concerns GM alfalfa.
In 2005 the USDA approved Roundup Ready alfalfa. Opponents of GM crops filed a lawsuit soon after and, in 2007, a federal judge ordered the USDA to conduct a more lengthy review. After publishing a draft report in 2009 and receiving some 244,000 comments, the USDA issued its final report on December 16th. The department presented two preferred options. First, it may allow GM alfalfa to be grown freely, like GM corn or soya. In the second choice, it would approve planting with rules to prevent the contamination of non-GM crops. For example, five miles (8km) would have to separate GM alfalfa from conventional or organic alfalfa fields. The USDA will receive comments on the plan until January 24th. A decision is expected soon after, so that farmers can prepare for spring planting.
A frenzy of activity has followed December’s report, with Mr Vilsack encouraging further discussion among farm groups. At a meeting at the USDA on December 20th, organic advocates demanded more, such as compensation for farmers whose crops are contaminated. Big farm associations were horrified—by the proposed rule and by the meeting itself. “What the USDA did on December 20th was akin to the European process,” shudders Russell Williams of the American Farm Bureau Federation. Mr Williams fears that the rule on alfalfa augurs further limits on GM crops.
Mr Vilsack insists that his department does not prefer one type of farming over another. Rather, he wants to help them coexist more peacefully. Without any action, Mr Vilsack argues, courts will dictate the future of GM, organic and conventional crops. (In August a court halted planting of GM beets pending a review, and another lawsuit aims to stop GM eucalyptus trees.) Mr Vilsack’s course will not be smooth. Opponents of GM crops sued the department over its original decision on alfalfa. Now GM advocates may sue the department over its new one.