Ultimately and hopefully, advocates of GM crops may prove correct and biotechnology will be the world’s savior. But before that can happen some sticky issues – which have been around from biotech’s inception, begging for solutions – must be dealt with. Is a farmer’s right to plant whatever he likes on his land trumped by his neighbor’s fear of pollen drift and desire to keep supplying organic/non-GM markets? How far should GM and conventional crops be kept apart? Will trade agreements be tweaked to allow GM crops into more countries?

Left for too long, those issues and others have now coalesced around Monsanto’s Roundup Ready alfalfa.  

First hearing

The USDA’s coming rules regarding the GM alfalfa, expected on Jan. 24, was the subject of the first 2011 House Agriculture Committee hearing.

Repeated findings by USDA that Roundup Ready alfalfa is safe “should be the end of the debate” regarding the crop’s deregulation, said Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas, new chairman of the committee, during a Jan. 20 hearing. The product “should be deregulated. Unfortunately, we now have a new problem. Since the USDA has determined there is no ‘plant/pest risk’ the only option under the statute is full deregulation. But the USDA is considering two additional options. One would have USDA retain full regulatory authority – (Agriculture) Secretary (Tom Vilsack) has acknowledged this is not preferred. The third option would be to only partially deregulate” Roundup Ready alfalfa.

The third option, which calls for “coexistence” between those wanting to grow GM alfalfa and those wanting to stick with conventional, was repeatedly criticized by Republicans during the hearing. Lucas said the proposed option would “have a negative impact on all U.S. agriculture. Concerns have been raised that this option was developed to prevent future lawsuits by addressing coexistence between conventional and organic production. That’s a political objective and is outside the scope of the legal authority.”

Following his opening statement, Vilsack was further chided by Lucas, who accused the USDA of injuring U.S. business interests with too-loose tongues. “I’d like to comment on the suggestion in your statement that some are questioning the value of having a conversation (on) coexistence. … USDA is currently engaged in a decision-making process on a petition to deregulate a specific crop. What is of concern here is the report that this conversation started with a comment to the effect of – and I think it’s a pretty accurate quote – ‘our preference is to have you all help us do the best we can. But if that isn’t possible then we’ll do the best we can.’

“I’d hope that you’d recognize that at a time when you have a company waiting for a decision that could cost the industry millions of dollars and thousands of jobs, comments like that create more of an atmosphere of, well, less than cooperation. … I hope you’ve instructed your staff this is not acceptable.”