January 21, 2011
On Thursday, January 20, the House Agriculture Committee held a “Public Forum” on USDA’s Biotechnology Product Regulatory Approval Process. The Forum focused primarily on USDA’s regulation of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready (glyphosate herbicide resistant) genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa under the Plant Protection Act, which has been challenged by organic and consumer organizations and farmers in federal court.
USDA Secretary Vilsack, appearing before the Committee in the 112th Congress for the first time, was the primary witness at the Forum. Last December, USDA released a Final Environmental Impact Statement for commercial use of GE alfalfa. USDA has indicated that the agency is ready to approve the partial deregulation of GE alfalfa for commercial planting under a plan of “co-existence,” a position restated by Secretary Vilsack at the House hearing. The Secretary’s view on co-existence is laid out in an open letter to opponents and proponents of GE crops.
USDA is scheduled to announce its final decision for the regulation of GE alfalfa on or very soon after January 24. The plan for partial deregulation would rely on buffers, restricted planting areas and other methods in an attempt to prevent the contamination of non-GE alfalfa, including organically produced alfalfa, with genetic material from GE alfalfa.
The issue is especially critical for the growing organic dairy sector, in which many farmers rely on organic alfalfa for feed. There are numerous examples of contamination of non-GE crops by GE crop genetic material, including an entire line of a major rice variety. USDA has yet to adequately demonstrate that there are effective methods for preventing such contamination.
The day before the hearing, House Agriculture Committee Chair Frank Lucas (R-OK) joined with Senators Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) in a letter delivered to Secretary Vilsack opposing the partial deregulation and calling for unregulated release of GE alfalfa. The congressmen contend that GE alfalfa has not been shown to be a plant pest and that USDA, therefore, does not have authority under the Plant Protection Act to continue regulating its use. The letter also criticized the Secretary for commencing a dialogue between opponents and proponents of GE crops. One basis for their concern is that such a dialogue and anything less than a complete deregulation of GE crops by USDA would undercut the position of the U.S. as a staunch advocate forcing the worldwide use and acceptance of GE crops in the World Trade Organization and other international forums.
An important point to note is that no one at the House Forum raised the issue of the proliferation of glyphosate-resistant weeds, especially in the South and Mid-West, where large amounts of glyphosate are applied every year to agricultural land growing Round-Up Ready GE crops. Recent reports indicate that farmers are abandoning some fields, undoing years of work in conservation tillage to control weeds with heavy tillage, and turning to the use of more toxic herbicides. Before the development of GE crops, glyphosate herbicide was used more judiciously because it could damage emerging crops. With the development of GE crops, the agricultural landscape has been flooded with glyphosate using methods that include large-scale aerial spraying.
USDA has yet to adequately address the issue of herbicide resistance in its oversight of GE crops. USDA should turn its attention from promoting GE crops to provide at least equal time for a concerted effort to promote the use of cover crops, resource-conserving crop rotations, and other sustainable techniques that can help control weeds and provide additional benefits in improvements to soil quality and water quality.