Sec. Vilsack, BIO square off over GMO process

By Sarah Gonzalez

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Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack fired back at accusations that his department is moving too slowly to approve genetically modified (GMO) and other new seed traits, during a press conference at the American Farm Bureau Federation's 95th Annual Convention in San Antonio.

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He appeared to be reacting to comments from Cathleen Enright, the Biotechnology Industry Organization's (BIO's) executive vice president of food and agriculture who spoke earlier in the convention. Enright said anti-GMO groups' push for GMO food labeling initiatives across several states is reducing consumer confidence in biotechnology. This is subsequently causing more attention from legislators, regulators and political leaders, she said.

Consequences of this heightened attention include U.S. approval timelines lagging behind other nations that are boosting their biotechnology industries, Enright said, particularly Brazil and Argentina.

“Argentina and Brazil have prioritized agricultural biotech and taken the emotion and the politics out of their scientific regulatory decisions,” she said.

However, Vilsack accused BIO of “basically providing false information.” 

“We've knocked 332 days off our approval time,” he said, referring to USDA's initiative to streamline regulatory approvals by the department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).   “I wish BIO would get a more current talking point.”

In November 2011, APHIS announced it would begin improving the overall timeline for biotechnology approvals by standardizing the process. APHIS published the official notice of the improved process in the Federal Register in March 2012.

Still, USDA records show that - over the last decade - the timeline for deregulation has been between two and five years.

While USDA did significantly improve the approval timelines for some products, the most recent data shows the complete deregulation process takes between 400 to 1,500 days, according to a presentation from APHIS's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS)2013 stakeholder meeting.

However, BRS also notes that steps within the deregulation process improved since 2011, and “timelines will continue to improve as pending petitions are cleared.”

Most recently, USDA said in a draft Environmental Impact Statement that full deregulation is the “preferred alternative” for Dow AgroSciences' corn and soybean traits resistant to the herbicide 2, 4-D. Dow AgroSciences began data submissions for its Enlist traits four years ago and has submitted farmer petitions to the agency to encourage approval.

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