House Agriculture Committee Chairman Lucas, R-Okla., and Ranking Member Colin Peterson, D-Minn., held the first oversight hearing of the 112th Congress. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was the key witness and the subject of the hearing was the deregulation of Roundup Ready alfalfa (RRA).

Biotechnology crops are regulated under the Plant Protection Act (PPA). USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) reviews all biotechnology crops before they can be field tested or commercialized. The PPA authorizes APHIS to deregulate a bioengineered crop into commercial use after it has independently reviewed scientific data and determined that the crop will not pose a potential as a plant pest.

RRA was deregulated in 2005. Two years later, after 250,000 acres were planted to this variety, the Center for Food Safety filed a lawsuit claiming that APHIS did not adequately complete an environmental assessment as mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). NEPA requires all federal agencies to consider the environmental impacts of any action they plan to implement but does not mandate that their final decision be based on their findings. The court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, who claimed that RRA would cause economic harm to organic alfalfa farmers, and it also imposed harsh restrictions on RRA production. The court ruled on NEPA procedures; there was no finding of any deficiency under the PPA or of any risk to health or safety. A similar lawsuit also has been filed against Roundup Ready sugar beets, and threatens to dismantle that industry.

In an unprecedented move, Secretary Vilsack has suggested that RRA be “partially deregulated,” i.e. deregulated with mandated conditions including isolation distances of up to five miles; limitations on harvest periods and equipment usage; seed bag labeling; seed coloration; and the listing of seed production field locations in a national data base. These conditions would prohibit 20 percent of farmers nationwide and 50 percent of Western farmers from utilizing RRA. It also would set the stage for future mandated conditions on biotech crops, including cotton, and would present a contradiction to long-standing US policy internationally.

Secretary Vilsack found no supporters in the House Agriculture Committee from either party for his suggestion. Vilsack repeated to that Committee what he has maintained for the past month – that his goal in the alfalfa decision and his recent encouragement for developing coexistence policy is to protect farmers’ choice.

Chairman Lucas countered, “I agree with the Secretary’s public statements about grower choice, which is why it’s troubling that USDA seems inclined to pursue a path that limits grower choice.”

Committee members repeatedly stated that the conditional deregulation option would have negative impacts on all of US agriculture.

Secretary Vilsack told the Committee that he would decide soon after next Monday’s expiration of a required 30-day public review period of its environmental impact statement whether to deregulate RRA with or without conditions.

In a second panel, former agriculture deputy secretary and current president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, Chuck Conner, testified on behalf of agricultural interests. He stated that APHIS should fully deregulate RRA without further delay to allow farmers to plant for the ’11 growing season, that any further discussion on coexistence should be decoupled from any deregulation decision, and that coexistence discussions should be inclusive of all US agriculture sectors and be transparent to the public.