By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
Recent actions by USDA have led biotech critics and proponents alike to think the agency will scrutinize genetically engineered crops more closely before commercializing them.
The agency has decided to apply a more rigorous environmental review to several transgenic crops than it has typically used to evaluate the potential effects of deregulation.
"It's startling to us and we're still trying to figure out why they did it," said Tyler Wegmeyer, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation.
USDA's decision creates an uncertainty about its oversight of biotech crops that will likely discourage companies from submitting traits for deregulation in the future, he said.
"It stifles innovation. It disrupts the whole system," Wegmeyer said. "It's a very unpredictable regulatory environment."
The action affects five varieties of corn, soybeans and cotton that have been altered by Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences to withstand the herbicides 2,4-D or dicamba.
Proponents see these new varieties as a new tool to fight glyphosate-resistant weeds, which have become more prevalent due to the popularity of this herbicide.
The idea is that weeds which have become accustomed to glyphosate will nonetheless be killed by 2,4-D or dicamba, thereby preventing the spread of their genes.
Critics of the technology believe that weeds will simply develop tolerance to the additional herbicides. In the meantime, critics fear increased spraying with 2,4-D and dicamba will lead to toxic impacts on the environment and human health.
The two herbicides are more harmful than glyphosate, which likely convinced the USDA to study the effects of their expanded usage more closely, said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety.
Biotech crops have traditionally undergone "environmental assessments," but the five varieties resistant to 2,4-D and dicamba will be subject to a more lengthy and complex "environmental impact statement."
The Center for Food Safety has twice won lawsuits that compelled the agency to complete such environmental impact statements for transgenic alfalfa and sugar beets, Kimbrell said.
Those battles have likely set a precedent at USDA, as the agency wants to avoid being ordered to conduct such reviews due to litigation, he said.
"It could have just been spanked by another court," Kimbrell said. "I don't think they wanted to play that game in front of a court."
While Kimbrell believes the USDA's decision will prevent a "rush to judgment" about the crops' safety, he said the actual impact of the studies is uncertain.
In a lawsuit over biotech alfalfa, the USDA has said it lacks regulatory authority to restrict biotech crops that aren't plant pests.
This approach basically lets the agency deregulate a biotech crop regardless of the conclusions of an environmental impact statement, Kimbrell said.
However, that interpretation has been challenged before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which may overrule the USDA and thereby give more weight to environmental impact statements, he said.
"How meaningful it is will be determined by the alfalfa case," Kimbrell said.
Wegmeyer said the USDA failed to scientifically justify subjecting the new varieties to greater scrutiny. The process will keep a valuable tool out of the hands of farmers dealing with glyphosate-resistant weeds, he said.
"They've been sitting in the regulatory approval process for years, and this will delay it for another two years, probably," Wegmeyer said.