Despite the USDA’s own proposal from last year, Sec. Vilsack’s department is now reversing course on deregulating Roundup Ready Alfalfa. According to the Department’s environmental review, the alfalfa was judged substantially equivalent to other varieties without red flags for regulators. But instead of taking the news as a green light to let the alfalfa on the market, as they have with other biotech plants like corn, USDA is waffling.
Now, the deregulation of Roundup Ready alfalfa could be accompanied by restrictions on seed production and, in some cases, cultivation of the hay itself, should USDA decide on implementing one of two preferred alternatives presented in a court-ordered environmental review of the crop.
The Wall Street Journal has strong words about the decision to “invite representatives from the biotech and organic industries to USDA in the coming days to discuss how the two farming methods may coexist.”
By suggesting that industry and activist groups negotiate compromises in advance of the final ruling on whether to deregulate, Mr. Vilsack is using the Department’s regulatory authority as leverage against businesses whose products are overwhelmingly regulated by USDA.
It gets worse. Mr. Vilsack’s authority in the regulatory decision-making process is based on the assumption of sound scientific data. But according to people who attended the meeting last Monday, the USDA Secretary told the assembled groups that science itself is subjective, and that he could have three different groups bring him three different supposedly scientific opinions.
At issue is whether the risk of pollen drift and subsequent ‘contamination’ of nearby organic plots of alfalfa poses a significant risk. To mitigate the possible contamination, organic producers have suggested mandatory minimum planting distances and a USDA administered fund that would compensate organic farmers who were harmed by which way the wind was blowing. Some have also suggested a system whereby traditional farmers accept liability for any contamination of organic crops.
According to WSJ, “If this sounds like vintage antibiotech activist fare with the imprimatur of the USDA, you’re getting the picture.”
For Seceratary Vilsack, the move should not worry anyone who favors full deregulation of a product that his agency has deemed ‘safe’ to use.
“USDA’s consideration of seed-growing restrictions does not signal a drop in its commitment to the use of genetically modified crops,” Vilsack said . The release of the alfalfa EIS is a “first step,” he said, in a long-postponed conversation that needs to happen now.
“We have seen rapid adoption of biotechnology in agriculture, along with the rise of organic and nongenetically engineered sectors over the last several decades,” Vilsack said. “While the growth in all these areas is great for agriculture, it has also led, at times, to conflict or, at best, an uneasy coexistence between the different ways of growing crops. We need to address these challenges and develop a sensible path forward for strengthening coexistence of all segments of agriculture in our country.”
The decision to place restrictions on the crop may face a challenge from within the Administration. Among those with reason to be less than pleased with the USDA’s antics are the folks at the office of the U.S. Trade Representative, who have seen similar antibiotech strains in trade disputes with the European Union.
And while alfalfa may not be a major biotech crop, the dispute may set a regulatory precedent that could open the gate for further politically motivated challenges to future deregulation decisions like with wheat and sugar beets.
We think the WSJ is correct when it says that,
“If nonscience criteria are introduced as considerations for allowing the sale of biotech crops, the effect would be disastrous for the USDA’s regulatory reputation. We hope Secretary Vilsack makes his decision based on science, not politics.”