USDA obeys GM rules, within law on alfalfa-Vilsack

Thu Jan 20, 2011 2:04pm EST

   * Vilsack says law allows partial approval of GM alfalfa
* House panelists say partial deregulation a wrong step
* USDA to make decision soon Roundup Ready alfalfa
By Charles Abbott
WASHINGTON, Jan 20 (Reuters) - The Agriculture Department
bases its approval of genetically modified crops on scientific
safety reviews, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on
Thursday, despite charges he may put unjustified restrictions
on an alfalfa strain.
Frank Lucas, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee,
said the USDA's decision on "Roundup Ready" alfalfa, developed
by Monsanto Co (MON.N), could "have negative impacts on all
U.S. agriculture" and the future of agricultural
biotechnology.
Lucas and other committee members said adoption of GM crops
could be hindered by Vilsack's suggestion that growers of
traditional and GM crops should find a way to "co-exist." It
could result in cropping limits that go beyond federal law,
they said. None spoke in support of Vilsack's approach.
"We wanted to make sure the secretary understood it was
important to follow the law," said Lucas afterward.
Some 23 GM products are under review by USDA, with five to
10 applications received annually. It takes six years, on
average, to rule on applications. Court challenges are common
-- action on Roundup Ready alfalfa and a similar Roundup Ready
sugar seed has been determined in part by court rulings.
"I think we have to have this conversation," said Vilsack,
so USDA arranged a recent meeting to discuss how "GE, non-GE
and organic" farmers can resolve their concerns. "This is not
picking sides. This is asking how all aspects of agriculture
prosper."
USDA is considering two options on Roundup Ready alfalfa --
total deregulation or partial deregulation or a partial
deregulation that could include isolation distances from other
crops, set geographic limits on where the crop is grown, spell
out harvest periods and regulate equipment use.
A decision can be made as soon as Monday, when a
public-comment period expires. Vilsack said, "It is the intent
we will act very shortly after that."
The lion's share of U.S. corn, soybeans and cotton is grown
with GM seed. Lucas said alfalfa and sugar beet plantings also
are 90 percent GM seed. USDA has approved 75 GM products for
planting in the past two decades.
Organic farmers say their crops and their livelihoods can be
damaged by pollen drifting from neighboring fields. Crops
cannot qualify as organic, and the premiums often accompany the
designation, if they contain GM material.
One group, the National Organic Coalition, says USDA should
create a fund to compensate growers whose crops suffer GM
contamination. The group says all GM crops should be regulated
and there should be a ban on GM corn, sugar beets, alfalfa and
canola and other GM crops "too promiscuous to prevent GM
contamination."
Bob Goodlatte, a former Agriculture chairman, told Vilsack,
"We need to keep marketing issues separate from safety issues."
Lucas said the GM review process showed Roundup Ready alfalfa
was safe so partial deregulation would be improper.
"USDA seems inclined to pursue a path that limits grower
choice," said Lucas.
Vilsack said USDA authority included partial deregulation of
GM alfalfa but also said, "I want to assure everyone that USDA
will continue to adhere to a scientific, risk-based
decision-making process and our decisions will continue to be
based on science."
Mainline farm groups and the biotechnology industry have
written to the White House to challenge Vilsack's approach. And
some farmers say if a neighbor is growing a crop for a premium,
it's their responsibility to assure the crop meets the special
standards.
Chuck Conner, deputy agriculture secretary during the Bush
era and now head of the National Council of Farmer
Cooperatives, said USDA would set a dangerous precedent if it
imposed planting restrictions for Roundup Ready alfalfa and
could invite other nations to reject U.S. GM crops.
Vilsack said some discussions among growers have touched on
compensation or indemnity funds or insurance coverage as
protection against crop contamination.
  (Reporting by Charles Abbott;editing by Sofina Mirza-Reid)

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
Comments (1)
epvaldo wrote:
We have to protect our organic farmers….. Corporate interest is a secondary issue. I rather have organic choices in lieu of frankenfood that does not require to be labeled.

Jan 21, 2011 10:25am EST  --  Report as abuse
This discussion is now closed. We welcome comments on our articles for a limited period after their publication.