January 20, 2011 / 12:31 AM / 9 years ago

USDA politicizes biocrop rules, say top lawmakers

 * USDA option on GM alfalfa goes beyond law, says letter
 * Farm groups say USDA strays from science as GM guide
 * Vilsack says fewer suits if growers agree to co-exist
 * Issue to get airing at House panel on Thursday
 By Charles Abbott
 WASHINGTON, Jan 19 (Reuters) - The Agriculture Department
is straying beyond the law by suggesting it can set planting
restrictions on genetically modified crops that are deemed
safe, said three senior U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday.
 USDA has raised the possibility of planting restrictions on
a GM alfalfa strain developed by Monsanto MON.N Co. And
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says growers of traditional
and GM crops should find a way to co-exist without repeated
lawsuits.
 "This is the first time these measures would be included in
a regulatory decision where the crop did not pose a plant pest
or health risk," wrote the Republicans to Vilsack.
They said if a GM crop is ruled safe after review by USDA,
the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug
Administration, "USDA has no authority to impose further
restrictions." There already are rules to settle cropping
disputes, they said.
 Signing the letter were Republican Frank Lucas, chairman of
the House Agriculture Committee and senators Pat Roberts and
Saxby Chambliss, the Republican leaders on the Senate
Agriculture Committee.
 Vilsack was scheduled to speak at a House Agriculture
Committee forum on Thursday on regulation of GM crops.
  A dispute over Monsanto's "Roundup Ready" alfalfa strain
went to the Supreme Court and a U.S. appeals court is hearing a
case on biotech sugar seeds. In both cases, USDA was accused of
improperly approving the crops for deregulation.
 In a speech last week, Vilsack said an even-handed
compromise among growers would be better than repeated
litigation.
 "Every farmer ought to be able to do what he or she wants
to do on their land, so we are going to continue to have that
conversation," he said.
 Seven major farm groups, as well as the Biotechnology
Industry Organization, wrote to the White House in early
January to object to USDA's path. The farm groups said it was
wrong "to use motives other than science to impose conditions
on this crop."
 On Dec 16, USDA released a final environmental impact
statement on the GM alfalfa and said it was considering two
alternatives for deregulation -- total approval 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.
  (Reporting by Charles Abbott;editing by Sofina Mirza-Reid)

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