By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
Biotech critics are alarmed by a rider attached to a recent spending bill passed by Congress that relates to USDA regulation of genetically engineered crops.
The provision was included in the continuing resolution that funds the federal government for the next six months, which was passed by the Senate on Wednesday and by the House on Thursday.
The rider pertains to transgenic crops that have been deregulated by the USDA but then had that approval overturned by a judge -- a scenario that has occurred with genetically engineered alfalfa and sugar beets.
In such a situation, the agency "shall" immediately issue permits or a partial deregulation order that would temporarily allow farmers to continue growing and selling the crop until USDA is done re-evaluating its environmental effects, according to the rider.
Proponents of biotechnology say the provision just reinforces the USDA's power to partially deregulate crops, as provided by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
"It doesn't require the USDA to do anything it wouldn't otherwise have the authority to do," said Karen Batra, communications director for the Biotechnology Industry Organization. "The language is there to protect farmers who have already made planting decisions."
The Center for Food Safety, a non-profit group that has challenged biotech crops in court, believes the effects of the rider are much more dramatic.
The word "shall" forces the USDA to continue allowing biotech crop cultivation even if its commercialization was overturned, said Andrew Kimbrell, the group's executive director. The Supreme Court simply held that the agency has that option.
"They've taken away the discretion of the secretary of agriculture," Kimbrell said. "Its real not-so-hidden purpose is to take away the ability to effectively vacate the approval of a crop that's been approved illegally."
The two sides can agree on one thing: The rider's impact is muted by the fact it will only be in place for six months, as long as the continuing resolution is effective.
Batra of the Biotechnology Industry Organization said the group hopes the time frame will be expanded, either by another continuing resolution or by more permanent legislation.
"From a precedent point of view, if we can get it in now, it's more likely to stay in," she said. "Then it becomes part of the policy dialogue up there."
Kimbrell said he expects the rider issue to be revived when new legislation is needed to keep the government running in September.
"The real battle will be six months from now to make sure this doesn't happen again," he said.
By including the rider in the continuing resolution, the Democrat-controlled Senate decided to "exploit the American public to make their bill more digestible for House Republicans," said Colin O'Neil, the group's government affairs director.
The rider was likely part of a "back room deal" to push through the legislation, but it's likely to encounter more opposition in the future, said Kimbrell. "I think it will be difficult for them to sneak this through again."