By Jim Webster

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, Jan. 20 – Members of the House Agriculture Committee delivered a clear message to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack Thursday: deregulate herbicide-tolerant biotech alfalfa, without onerous restrictions, and do it quickly. Vilsack’s first encounter with the Republican-majority committee found no supporters in either party for an option that would impose stringent conditions on biotech alfalfa planting in order to protect organic and non-biotech fields.

Vilsack told the panel that he would decide quickly after next Monday’s expiration of a required 30-day public review period of its environmental impact statement on one of two “preferred options” – unrestricted approval or conditional release with geographic restrictions and isolation distances for the “Roundup Ready” alfalfa bred to resist the Monsanto glyphosate herbicide.

Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., set the tone early, telling Vilsack that the Plant Protection Act is “a pure science statute” and that consideration of “coexistence” between biotech and organic crops is “a political objective and is outside the scope of legal authority.” Now that the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service final environmental impact statement has upheld its earlier finding of no safety risk, Lucas said, “the only option under the statute is full deregulation.”

The conditional deregulation option “would have negative impacts on all U.S. agriculture,” Lucas insisted. “I agree with the secretary’s public statements about grower choice, which is why it’s troubling that USDA seems inclined to pursue a path that limits grower choice.” Vilsack repeated to the committee what he has maintained for the past month – that his goal in the alfalfa decision and his recent encouragement for developing coexistence policy is to protect choice.

Former Chairman Collin C. Peterson, D-Minn., now the committee’s ranking minority member, offered Vilsack little more encouragement but noted that the process “has taken decisions about alfalfa production largely out of the hands of the agriculture community and moved them into the courtroom, litigated by lawyers and decided by judges who have no connection to agriculture.”

Yet the alternative of severe planting restrictions, he added, “is a highly unusual step that arguably creates more questions than answers with respect to the science-based regulatory process, our trade policy with respect to biotechnology, and perhaps even the re-examination of previously-approved biotech traits.” Peterson also said he’s not optimistic that consensus is possible “because some folks will use every tool possible to try to and shut down biotech crops.”

To a question from Lucas about how the long-standing U.S. support of biotechnology in global trade negotiations would be affected “if ultimately this segregated concept is decided,” Vilsack replied, “It would cause me angst if the decision were not science-based and not-rules based. That has been the position of this government for some time and something we’ve been critical of in other countries.”

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said that USDA’s position “seems to be changing” and asked “How does that echo across Europe?” Vilsack responded “The decision we make, if justified by the science and within the rules, would be consistent with our position.”

Former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Charles Conner, now CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, echoed many of the concerns expressed by members, especially about the precedent that would be set if the secretary chose the restrictive option. He said the successful challenge by the U.S. to the European Union’s biotech moratorium was won because “our system is based on safety and soundness. We won that case, we won it strongly. It would be hard to back up that case if we go down the path” of the option that would impose planting restrictions. He agreed with Lucas that choosing that option would be similar to adopting the EU’s “precautionary principle,” which he described as “a manifestation of policies where politics trumps science.”

Along with Representative Lucas, U.S. Senators Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., and Pat Roberts, R-Kan., sent a letter on January 19 to Secretary Vilsack expressing concern that recent proposals by the USDA could politicize the regulatory process and could set a harmful precedent for biotech crops in the future if pursued. To read the letter, click HERE.

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