By Agri-Pulse Staff

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, Jan. 19 – Sen. Saxby Chambliss,R-Ga., Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and House Agriculture Committee Chair Frank Lucas, R-Okla., wrote Secretary Tom Vilsack Wednesday to ask USDA to return to a science-based regulatory system for agriculture biotechnology and to deregulate genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa without restrictions. In the letter, the members charge that while science strongly supports the safety of GE alfalfa, USDA’s actions politicize the regulatory process and could set a harmful precedent for open pollinated crops in the future.

The full text of the letter to Sec. Vilsack follows:

January 19, 2011

The Honorable Tom Vilsack
United States Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20250

Dear Secretary Vilsack:

Recently, the Department convened a forum of stakeholders to discuss alfalfa co-existence. The issue has generated a significant amount of controversy and emotion with implications for the future of agricultural biotechnology in the United States and around the world. Since 1996, the innovation and adoption of agricultural biotechnology has not only brought significant environmental benefits, it has likewise contributed to higher yields, greater production, and higher profitability for U.S. farmers. Each year, new products are brought to market under the oversight of a science based regulatory process that has no equal in the world. This “Coordinated Framework” between the Department of Agriculture (USDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) combines each agency’s professionalism and expertise.

The forum followed the release of a final environmental impact statement (EIS) that evaluates the potential environmental effects of deregulating genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa. While the final EIS concluded that GE Alfalfa does not pose a plant pest risk, it nonetheless contained a significant departure from existing policy since it includes a third option to grant non-regulated status to the product with geographic restrictions and isolation distances. These options had not previously been published in either the draft or final Environmental Assessment nor the draft EIS. This is the first time these measures would be included in a regulatory decision where the crop did not pose a plant pest or health risk. The solitary reason for the “conditions” would be to interfere in planting decisions based on the risk of economic harm due to pollen drift.

As you acknowledge, the science strongly supports the safety of GE alfalfa. The National Environmental Policy Act was specifically written to address the potential impacts of regulatory decisions on the environment. The Act is neither designed nor well suited to manage or determine the economic relationships in the agriculture sector. The third alternative steps beyond the scope of the Act and is a poor substitute for existing options available for farmers to amicably resolve the concerns regarding co-existence of agriculture biotechnology, conventional and organic crops.

The proposed third alternative is equally troubling due to the precedent it will set for open pollinated crops in the future. For example, with 86 percent of the corn crop and 93 percent of cotton planted to biotech varieties last year, the decisions made in the context of alfalfa will be felt across the country. Further, the implications of such decisions could potentially hinder the future development of varieties necessary to address the growing needs to produce more food, fiber and fuel on the same amount of land with fewer inputs.

It is unfortunate that those critical of the technology have decided to litigate and as you rightly point out that courts may unwisely interfere in normal commerce. However, the alternative you propose and include in the EIS is equally disturbing since it politicizes the regulatory process and goes beyond your statutory authority and indeed Congress’ intent in the Plant Protection Act (PPA). The PPA requires the Secretary to make a scientific determination if the product under review is a plant pest (7 U.S.C. 7711(c)(3)). If the final decision is that the product is not a plant pest, nor would the movement of the product in question impose the risk of dissemination of a plant pest, then USDA has no authority to impose further restrictions (7 U.S.C. 7712(a)).

We support a conversation between those supportive and critical of agriculture biotechnology. However, suggestions that aspects of the conversation thus far have been taking place with the regulated entity under duress by the regulator are of equal concern. Decisions should be based on science with other factors more appropriately considered in the market place. Our government fought diligently to preserve the integrity of science based decision making in the World Trade Organization and the success in that body should not be so casually set aside.

We appreciate your attention to our concerns and look forward working with you on this important issue.

Very truly yours,

U.S. Senator Saxby Chambliss
U.S. Senator Pat Roberts
U.S. Representative Frank Lucas

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