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.”

Long process

Vilsack, who said some 75 biotech products (with roughly 10 percent containing glyphosate tolerance genes) have been deregulated by the USDA, admitted “this has been a long and torturous process that alfalfa has gone through. This started in 2005. Courts have come in and essentially directed us to perform a more extensive evaluation under an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).”

Under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), when considering deregulation for a GM crop USDA is to consider two approaches. “One is the Environmental Assessment (EA) and the other is the EIS,” said Vilsack. “We had, prior to the last several years, used the EA fairly successfully. … Recently, there have been questions about the comprehensive nature of those assessments (leading) courts to direct us to do more extensive reviews in the form of EIS. We have done that.

“Our belief is the reason for the courts directing us to do that is they believe the EIS ought to ‘inform’ the process going forward. We produced an extensive EIS in connection with alfalfa: 2,300 pages. In it, we identified a number of areas, put a draft EIS out for comment, received a number of comments back. In an effort to be responsive to those comments we took a look at various alternatives.”

And once a decision on Roundup Ready alfalfa is released, more comments will come, said Vilsack.

“When we proposed the various alternatives, it created and generated a dialogue between differing interests. I think it’s been a positive experience for those who have participated. Why? Because it’s allowed us to better understand the unique nature of alfalfa, to better understand the greater awareness of stewardship contracting taking place in the market. It’s allowed us to have questions raised about the process of verifying those stewardship contracts. And it’s underscored the importance of trying to build more of a trusting relationship between various interests of agriculture.

“Perhaps most positive of all, it has helped USDA begin to look at tools outside this process to help further this sense of cooperation. For example, issues have been raised about the purity of seed and whether there will be an assurance of its purity. (That way) anyone who wants to do organic or identity-preserved non-GE will always have that option. We can play a role in that.”

As for international negotiations, trading partners and exports, Vilsack said he’s always taken the long view. “When I first came into office, we developed an overall strategy for how we might be better positioning biotechnology in the international community. That involves better public diplomacy, better articulation of the benefits of biotechnology. It involves identifying countries … more receptive of biotechnology and encouraging them to speak with their counterparts, whether in Africa or Asia, about the important role that biotechnology can play in food security.”

Questions

Ranking member, Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, asked if “folks that oppose biotech picked on sugar beets (another GM crop long in regulatory review) and alfalfa because they’re small crops?”

Vilsack was unsure of motivations “but I’ll say this: EIS are very expensive and time-consuming. We’ve got to figure out a way (to deal with this): either beefing up the capacity of APHIS … to handle these petitions on a more timely basis or develop a better way of dealing with the industry so the industry can … assist in putting these EIS together and have us critically review them. There has got to be a way to reduce the time.”

Peterson: “Do you have the authority to implement option three?”

“The statute indicates we have three decisions that can be made with reference to any petition,” answered Vilsack. “One is to say ‘we’ll continue to regulate it.’ Another is ‘we won’t regulate it, at all.’ The third is ‘we’ll deregulate it, in part.’ I think we have those three authorities.”

Peterson: “You need no additional authority, or this committee doesn’t need to look at, any changes to the act to accommodate what you’re trying to do?”

Vilsack: “I wouldn’t say you don’t need to look at the act. (The Plant Variety Act) was enacted, I believe, in the early 1980s and (since) we’ve seen a tremendous expansion of biotechnology and conflicting interests being raised. That certainly merits a review.”

Private party

The legality of USDA’s proposed third option was also a topic for the hearing’s second panel, which included Chuck Conner, former USDA under- and acting-secretary and current president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives.

For more on Conner, see Conner: co-ops, trade, antitrust concerns, and the new farm bill

Iowa Rep. Leonard Boswell asked Conner, who pushed for the GM alfalfa’s deregulation, if USDA has “the authority to implement partial deregulation?”

“I’m not a lawyer,” responded Conner. “Having served as one who oversaw the regulatory process, it’s my view that once they’ve completed (the full assessment) of the safety of these products – which they have on Roundup Ready alfalfa – I don’t think they have the regulatory authority to do anything other than simply deregulate the product. That’s the so-called ‘option two’ the USDA has presented.”

Conner said he is unsure how to “feed this hungry world” without GM crops. “At the same time … the interest in organic food has exploded. It’s a great opportunity for jobs and giving people what they want. I kind of maintain the idea, with this grand need we have, that there’s room for both.”

Boswell, keen to strike a conciliatory tone, asked, “Do you share my hope and belief that they can work this out and co-exist?”

“I do,” said Conner. “I share it wholeheartedly. Many of the farmer-owned co-ops I represent are engaged in conventional as well as organic production. They’ve seen tremendous growth in both.”

Boswell worried about “developing sides” on deregulation. “I don’t think there needs to be sides. Maybe we need to figure out how to facilitate communications. It seems everyone on the committee feels we (need) the science. At the same time, in this exchange I’ve had with Mr. Conner, there’s a desire, need and use for the organic (crops).”

If USDA’s “third option” is adopted, Texas Rep. Mike Conaway sees a “monster bureaucracy coming together to try and set standards and buffer zones … for every single product. Aren’t those decisions better left to the states and local municipalities and entities rather than an effort by USDA across the country?”

Conner was in the corner of those advocating private party interests. “There is precedent with private party interests looking after these issues of co-existing – quite successfully. In the case of alfalfa, in particular, some of the members I represent are quite anxious to fill a market for organic alfalfa seed – a market that exists in a big way and they believe through private contractual arrangements they can fulfill.”

Conner dissected Vilsack’s early testimony. “The rub here is – and I go back to Vilsack’s statement: ‘I look forward to our discussion here and hope you share my belief that farmers/ranchers/growers are in the best position to decide what is best for their operations.’ I concur with that statement. There is not a role for the federal government to be stepping in the middle of private contractual arrangements relative to co-existence. I believe they’ll take care of themselves.”

Conaway: “(Vilsack) said all the right things, was political about everything and hugged all sides. But, at the end of the day, if he pulls the trigger on ‘option three’ that last statement (you read) is inaccurate.”

Conner didn’t hesitate: “It’s inaccurate. That’s correct.”