* 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)