Will New USDA Approach to Biotech Approvals Work?

USDA issues environmental impact statement for Roundup Ready alfalfa which takes into account environmental and economic impacts.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been caught in the cross hairs of several court cases recently involving genetically engineered (GE) crops. The most recent include GE alfalfa and GE sugar beets.

A Supreme Court case this summer on RR alfalfa required a final EIS be put into place before growers can again plant RR alfalfa.

In hopes of preventing courts from telling farmers what they can and cannot plant, Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack announced USDA has come out with a revised Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for RR alfalfa which provides one alternative to typical deregulation by deregulating GE alfalfa but also taking into account geographic restrictions and isolation differences. Vilsack said the timeline should allow for planting this spring.

Vilsack told reporters in a press conference, that the agency heard clearly from judges and plaintiffs that the deregulation process of genetically engineered crop lacked thorough environmental and economic impacts. As such, the latest EIS "puts more options on the table" as well as meets the needs of companies developing GE products and provides growers a choice whether it is to grow organically, non-GE or GE crops.

By listing both deregulation option and the other deregulation accompanied by a combination of isolation distances and geographic restrictions as preferred, USDA has considered plant pest issues as well as broader environmental and economic issues related to the coexistence between genetically engineered, non-genetically engineered, and organic alfalfa production, the agency said.

Vilsack also called for a collaborative discussion on strengthening coexistence. He noted that organic, non-GE and GE producers should be able to thrive together. "We will partner with all those who want to roll up their sleeves and work with us and each other to find commonsense solutions to today's challenges," he said.

Vilsack criticized how current court systems are telling farmers what they can and cannot plant. His goal for the collaborative discussions would be to "give courts options that don't exist today." He added, "We shouldn't let decisions about coexistence be set by litigation." 

The questions remain whether 1) if all those interested in the issue will indeed come to the table to talk things out and 2) if any agreement reached will actually slow the continual tool of anti-biotechnology groups to stall approvals through the courts.

 Read a Q&A on the EIS.

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