USDA closes comments on intent to review herbicide-tolerant crops

By Sarah Gonzalez

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, July 17, 2013- The U.S. Department of Agriculture intends to conduct Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) on certain herbicide-resistant crops developed by Dow AgroSciences and Monsanto. Several agricultural organizations, independent farmers and specialists issued comments today to the agency on whether or not preparing the stringent EISs for the crops is necessary.

USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) announced in May that it would prepare two separate assessments on crops that are genetically engineered to be resistant to 2,4-D and dicamba. APHIS closed the public comment period on its intentions to prepare the EISs today.

Dow and Monsanto submitted their innovations to APHIS for non-regulated status. 2,4-D resistant products included in the petitions for non-regulated status are Dow AgroSciences' herbicide-resistant corn and soybean. Dicamba-resistant products in the petitions are Monsanto's double herbicide-resistant cotton and herbicide-resistant soybean.

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Leaders in the biotechnology industry questioned the decision to prolong the approval process for the traits when APHIS issued its Notice of Intent in May.

According to comments published today by the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), APHIS estimates completing both EISs in 2014, which is almost five years after the first petition was filed with the agency. 

“The delay that will result from preparation of the EISs will deny American farmers the new tools they need to prevent and combat herbicide-resistant weeds and maximize yields,” commented BIO's Food and Agriculture Executive Vice President, Cathleen Enright.

In his comments published today, American Farm Bureau Federation's Dale Moore said, “USDA's decision to perform duplicative and time-consuming analyses already within the regulatory responsibilities of other federal agencies is not only unreasonable but further delays and impedes the ability of our members to access this much needed new technology.”

AFBF asked APHIS to reconsider the need for EISs in light of a recent ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in the Roundup Ready® Alfalfa (RRA) case. In the case, the judge ruled that the herbicide-resistant alfalfa is not a “plant pest” under the Plant Protection Act, so APHIS did not have jurisdiction to regulate the plant.

“APHIS's sole justification for preparing an EIS, as stated in the Notice of Intent, is to assess herbicide resistance,” Moore said. “But the Ninth Circuit's decision makes clear that USDA does not need to analyze herbicide resistance in connection with these deregulation petitions.”

Charles Hall, North Carolina Soybean Producers Association CEO, elaborated in his comments that USDA's notice of intent to conduct an EIS on the herbicide-resistant crops “exceeds the authority Congress granted it to regulate under the Plant Protection Act (PPA) and interferes with the role of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate herbicides.”

Andrew LaVigne, American Seed Trade Association CEO, clarified that issues under National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) relevant to herbicide-resistant weeds and increased herbicide use are subject to the jurisdiction of the EPA under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (“FIFRA”) and are not subject to APHIS's jurisdiction under the Plant Protection Act (“PPA”).

Several specialty crop farmers commented on the EIS proposals in support of the Save Our Crops Coalition's stance to require stricter oversight of herbicide-resistant crops.

Dennis Dixon of Hartung Brothers, Inc., which offers contracts for vegetables and seed corn to farmers and processors, said non-target plant damage associated with herbicide spray drift “is a major concern for specialty crop growers and processors.”

“Credible estimates project significant increases in the amount of dicamba that will be applied upon the introduction of dicamba tolerant crops,” Dixon stated. “We request that USDA strictly analyze changes to agronomic practices, including herbicide use, that will result from deregulation of these crops, and consider where USDA and EPA may be able to jointly develop effective measures to protect against the threat of non-target plant damage these crops pose.”

Elaine Leslie, the division chief for the Biological Resource Management Division of the National Park Service (NPS), commented that NPS is “concerned about the indirect effects on the soil and water quality in NPS areas as a result of increased herbicide use.”

“We believe the indirect effects on soil and water quality as a result of increased herbicide use of the products proposed to be de-regulated, be evaluated,” she concluded.

However, Fred Yoder, former National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) president and fourth-generation soybean, corn and wheat farmer, supported a more timely review of the crops, so that “regulatory review of new biotech traits does not fall further behind those of other major crop producing countries such as Brazil or Argentina, who are rapidly gaining a larger share of the global market.”

“Farmers have many years of experience using products like dicamba, and are very capable of preventing off-site movement through proper stewardship including application techniques, equipment settings, nozzle selection, and consideration of environmental conditions during application, such as wind speed,” Yoder said.

In specific reference to dicamba-tolerant cotton, research and extension weed scientists from Texas A&M University, Mississippi State University and The University of Georgia encouraged USDA to complete its review.

“In the case of dicamba's use in dicamba and glufosinate tolerant cotton we believe that the risk of evolution of resistance is relatively low,” they wrote in their comments. “If one balances risk of resistance with benefits of use, the benefits greatly outweigh the risk in this case.”

APHIS noted that all comments “will be carefully considered in developing the final scope of the EIS,” and another opportunity for the public to comment will be available when it completes the draft Environmental Impact Statements.

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