Late last week, USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) granted nonregulated status for alfalfa that has been genetically engineered to be resistant to the herbicide commercially known as Roundup. That means producers are free to plant the crop this spring. Alfalfa is the nation's fourth-largest field crop. It is grown on about 20 million acres.

This is not the first time that Roundup Ready Alfalfa (RR alfalfa) has been approved for commercial use. In 2005, the crop was deregulated, and more than 5,000 farmers planted it on over 250,000 acres before a court ruling regarding USDA's administrative process halted further seed sales and planting in 2007. During the most recent court-mandated review, the extensive environmental critique took 46 months to complete.

USDA's most recent decision allows that farmers to freely move and plant RR alfalfa seed without further oversight from APHIS. Although APHIS would no longer have any regulatory control over the planting, distribution, or other actions related to RR alfalfa, APHIS does assume that growers would continue to be subject to contract restrictions imposed by Monsanto's technology agreement. These nonregulatory restrictions include managing hay to prevent seed production, harvesting at or before 10 percent bloom in areas where seed is produced, and prohibitions on use in wildlife feed plots.

In deregulating the crop, USDA Agriculture Secretary said, "APHIS has determined that Roundup Ready alfalfa is as safe as traditionally bred alfalfa."

That means RR alfalfa is not expected to become more invasive in natural environments or have any different effect on critical habitat than traditional alfalfa. In addition, nutritional profiles of RR alfalfa and traditional alfalfa are not different so animal nutrition should be similar.