In an unexpected move, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Thursday that USDA will allow genetically engineered (GE) Roundup Ready alfalfa to be planted without restriction.

The announcement bucked expectations that the deparment’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) would likely introduce a partial deregulation of the crop, which is engineered to withstand Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. Partial deregulation would have imposed geographic restrictions on planting in an effort to prevent GE contamination of non-GE and organic alfalfa. Vilsack’s recent statements about “coexistence and cooperation” between GE and non-GE agriculture led many to believe partial deregulation of the crop was in the pipeline.

“I think there’s a general sigh of relief in U.S. agriculture that this is the right decision,” Mark McCaslin, president of Forage Genetics International, a co-developer of Roundup Ready alfalfa told one reporter. “I am sure there were a lot of people who were nervous.”

Organic and sustainable farming advocates were disappointed by the decision. “This creates a perplexing situation when the market calls for a supply of crops free of genetic engineering. The organic standards prohibit the use of genetic engineering, and consumers will not tolerate the accidental presence of genetic engineered materials in organic products yet GE crops continue to proliferate unchecked,” said Christine Bushway, executive director and CEO of the Organic Trade Association in a statement.

Bill Tomson and Scott Kilman of the Wall Street Journal reported that Vilsack’s rejection of a compromise proposal–partial deregulation, which was vehemently opposed by biotech companies and only tepidly accepted by non-GE interests–was the result of an Obama administration review of “burdensome” regulations.

Sources familiar with the negotiations at USDA, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Food Safety News they believe the White House asked Vilsack to drop proposed regulations so the administration would appear more friendly to big business.

The White House did not respond for comment.

GE alfalfa has been at the center of litigation–and national controversy–since 2005 when the Center for Food Safety, along with organic and conventional farmers, sued the USDA alleging APHIS had not adequately reviewed GE alfalfa and that cross-pollination was causing the farmers harm. The case went all the way to Supreme Court last April, the first ever GE crop case to reach the high court. In a 7-1 decision, the Supreme Court overturned a lower court’s ban on GE alfalfa, saying it went too far, but agreed that USDA was required by federal law to complete an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

USDA completed an EIS in mid-December and put two options on the table: to allow the engineered alfalfa without restrictions or to allow the crop with certain geographic and isolation restrictions.

“After conducting a thorough and transparent examination of alfalfa through a multi-alternative environmental impact statement (EIS) and several public comment opportunities, APHIS has determined that Roundup Ready alfalfa is as safe as traditionally bred alfalfa,” Vilsack said in a statement. “All of the alfalfa production stakeholders involved in this issue have stressed their willingness to work together to find solutions. We greatly appreciate and value the work they’ve done so far and will continue to provide support to the wide variety of sectors that make American agriculture successful.”

The Center for Food Safety, a plaintiff in the multi-year litigation, said it was “disappointed” by USDA’s decision. “USDA has become a rogue agency in its regulation of biotech crops and its decision to appease the few companies who seek to benefit from this technology comes despite increasing evidence that GE alfalfa will threaten the rights of farmers and consumers, as well as damage the environment,” said executive director Andrew Kimbrell.

Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), new Chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, issued a statement of support for deregulation, but said flaws in the current regulatory system need to be addressed.

“I applaud the USDA’s decision to deregulate Roundup Ready alfalfa, giving growers the green light to begin planting an abundant, affordable and safe crop,” Stabenow said. “While I’m glad this decision was guided by sound science, I’m concerned that USDA’s process creates too much uncertainty for our growers. Alfalfa was one of nearly two dozen genetically modified crops awaiting USDA evaluation and approval–a bottlenecked process that hinders growth and progress.”

Vilsack told reporters Thursday that USDA would support research to help maintain the integrity of non-GE alfalfa and would reestablish advisory committees to review tools and options available to farmers on all sides of the issue.

The department is expected to make additional announcements on GE sugar beets and corn as early as next week.