WASHINGTON (DTN) - USDA will make a decision on the regulatory status of Roundup Ready alfalfa "very, very shortly" after a comment period comes to an end on Jan. 24, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Jan. 20 during his first appearance before the House Agriculture Committee since the Republicans gained controlled of the House.
At a public forum on the biotechnology regulatory approval process, Vilsack told the committee that he wants farmers to be able to decide as soon as possible what they can plant this spring. But in meeting with reporters afterward, he declined to discuss any further details of how the decision would be implemented until it is announced.
Vilsack engaged in a lengthy and somewhat contentious dialogue with members at Thursday's event, which the House parliamentarian said had to be billed as a committee-sponsored public forum rather than a hearing because the committee has not yet held its organizational meeting.
Vilsack, an advocate of biotechnology now and when he was governor of Iowa, told the committee, "The rapid adoption of [genetically engineered] crops has coincided with the rapid expansion of demand for organic and other non-[genetically engineered] products, resulting in real, practical difficulties for some [non-genetically engineered] producers to meet the need of their markets. These conflicts have produced ongoing litigation and resulted in uncertainty for producers and technology innovators.
"We are at a crucial juncture in American agriculture where the issues causing the litigation and uncertainty must be addressed, so that the potential contributions of all sectors of agriculture can be fully realized."
USDA is considering three options on Roundup Ready alfalfa: continued regulation, full deregulation or a partial deregulation that would require isolation distances from other crops of up to 5 miles and other geographic restrictions, and establish measures to make sure that the genetically engineered alfalfa does not contaminate conventional or organic alfalfa.
Seed companies, major farm groups and senators and members of Congress from farm states have called for full deregulation, meaning that genetically engineered alfalfa could be planted anywhere. They contend that because USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has said Roundup Ready alfalfa is not a plant pest, any other decision would not be scientifically based.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-OK, told Vilsack in an opening statement that "Since there is no plant pest risk, the only option under [the Plant Protection Act] is full deregulation." Lucas said he recognizes USDA has proposed the partial deregulation option to prevent future lawsuits, but added, "That is a political objective and is outside the scope of legal authority."
Vilsack responded that the partial deregulation option could be a practical way to handle the issue, since USDA has petitions to deregulate another 23 biotech seeds and the approval process is taking longer and longer.
Committee members said they fear the partial deregulation of alfalfa would set precedents, but Vilsack said that in the process, he has learned that each crop is unique.
In response to questions about whether the partial deregulation option would complicate U.S. attempts to convince foreign governments to allow genetically engineered seeds and foods from the U.S., Vilsack said he did not believe it would be an issue because the decision would be science- and rules-based.
He also noted that adoption of biotechnology is not the only trade issue involved in this decision. Organic alfalfa has a substantial export market, Vilsack said. "The non-GE markets are pretty profitable for folks," he said, adding that members of the committee had frequently told him to focus on exports.
Lucas and most Republicans were restrained in their questioning style, but Rep. Timothy Johnson, R-IL, the new chairman of the subcommittee that oversees biotechnology, provided a taste of the type of questions that were raised in the 2010 congressional elections.
Johnson asked Vilsack to cite the statute that would give USDA the power to issue the partial deregulation option. Vilsack gave a numerical reference, but Johnson said that was a regulation, not a statute.
"When we go home for the weekend, the government is controlled by people who are unelected," Johnson said. "This body and not unelected bureaucrats should make those decisions."
House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-MN, said he believes that Vilsack is "genuinely" looking for a solution to avoid litigation but added he is not sure he shares the secretary's optimism "because some folks will use every tool possible to try and shut down biotech crops." Peterson also said that USDA's original 2005 decision to conduct an environmental assessment "gave opponents assistance."
Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-IA, said he is torn about the issue because two of his grandchildren are involved in organic production and sales, but he continues to believe that genetically engineered crops are vital to feeding a growing world population.
Rep. Steve King, R-IA, asked Vilsack if Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, known as an advocate of organic food, would be involved in the decision on Roundup Ready alfalfa. Vilsack replied that he understood other members of the committee might be concerned about her involvement, but he said that King and Boswell as fellow Iowans should know "This decision at the end of the day is the secretary's decision."
After Vilsack left the forum, Chuck Conner, president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives and former Agriculture deputy secretary and acting secretary in the Bush administration, testified that USDA should continue to base its regulatory decisions only on science if the U.S. is to maintain its leadership position on agriculture.
"The best way to ensure production of this valuable crop is for USDA to grant full deregulation without further delay," Conner said.
The decision Vilsack will announce on the regulatory status of Roundup Ready alfalfa comes at the end of a lengthy regulatory and legal process. Under the Plant Protection Act, USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has the authority to review all biotechnology crops before they can be field tested or commercialized. Over the years, APHIS has approved about 70 biotech crops, Vilsack said Thursday.
In 2005, when the Bush administration was in power, APHIS prepared an environmental assessment for glyphosate-tolerant alfalfa, declared it safe and deregulated it. The crop was grown for two years, but activists concerned that the genetically modified alfalfa could contaminate conventional and organic alfalfa filed suit, charging that APHIS had not followed the National Environmental Policy Act when it prepared an environmental assessment rather than a full environmental impact statement (EIS).
In 2007, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled that APHIS would have to complete a full EIS. In December, USDA announced that the court-ordered EIS was complete and that after consultation with stakeholders, the agency would consider the three options on Roundup Ready alfalfa.