Vilsack spars with House ag committee over options
By JERRY HAGSTROM
For the Capital Press
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In his first appearance before the House Agriculture Committee since Republicans assumed the majority, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said USDA would make a decision on regulating Roundup Ready alfalfa "very, very shortly." The comment period ended Jan. 24.
Vilsack said he wants farmers to be able to decide as soon as possible what they will plant this spring. But in a meeting with reporters afterward, he declined to discuss further details.
Vilsack also engaged in a lengthy and somewhat contentious dialogue with committee members.
The alfalfa decision comes at the end of a lengthy regulatory and legal process. Under the Plant Protection Act, USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service must review all biotechnology crops before they can be field tested or commercialized. Over the years, APHIS has approved about 70 biotech crops, Vilsack said.
In 2005 APHIS prepared an environmental assessment for glyphosate-tolerant alfalfa, declared it safe and deregulated it. The crop was grown for two years, but activists concerned that the genetically modified alfalfa could contaminate conventional and organic alfalfa filed suit. They charged that APHIS had not followed the National Environmental Policy Act when it prepared an environmental assessment instead of a more in-depth environmental impact statement.
In 2007, a federal court ruled that APHIS must complete a full impact statement. In December, USDA announced that it was complete and that after consultation with stakeholders, the agency would consider three options:
* Continued regulation.
* Full deregulation.
* Partial deregulation that would require isolation distances of up to five miles and other restrictions to make sure it does not contaminate conventional or organic alfalfa.
Vilsack, an advocate of biotechnology, told the committee the rapid adoption of genetically engineered crops has coincided with the expansion of demand for organic and other non-modified products, often putting the two sectors in conflict.
"These conflicts have produced ongoing litigation and resulted in uncertainty for producers and technology innovators," he said.
Seed companies, major farm groups and farm state legislators have called for full deregulation, allowing the crop to be planted anywhere. They contend that because APHIS has said Roundup Ready alfalfa is not a plant pest, any other decision would not be scientifically based.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., told Vilsack that since there is no plant pest risk, the only option under the Plant Protection Act is full deregulation.
Lucas said he recognizes USDA has proposed the partial deregulation option to prevent future lawsuits, but added, "That is a political objective and is outside the scope of legal authority."
Vilsack responded that the partial deregulation option could be a practical way to handle the issue, since USDA has petitions to deregulate 23 other biotech crops and the approval process is taking longer and longer. Committee members said they fear the partial deregulation of alfalfa would set a precedent, but Vilsack said that in the process he has learned that each crop is unique.
He was asked whether the partial deregulation option would complicate U.S. attempts to convince foreign governments to allow genetically engineered seeds and foods from the United States. Vilsack said he did not believe it would be an issue, because the decision would be science- and rules-based.
He also noted that adoption of biotechnology is not the only trade issue involved in this decision. Organic alfalfa has a substantial export market, Vilsack said. "The non-GE markets are pretty profitable for folks," he said.