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- Long-standing concerns arising from biotechnology -- farmers' planting liberties, government regulation, foreign markets and trade deals -- remain as USDA's afalfa high-wire act continues.
Vilsack, who said some 75 biotech products (with roughly 10 percent containing glyphosate tolerance genes) have been deregulated by the USDA, admitted “this has been a long and torturous process that alfalfa has gone through. This started in 2005. Courts have come in and essentially directed us to perform a more extensive evaluation under an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).”
Under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), when considering deregulation for a GM crop USDA is to consider two approaches. “One is the Environmental Assessment (EA) and the other is the EIS,” said Vilsack. “We had, prior to the last several years, used the EA fairly successfully. … Recently, there have been questions about the comprehensive nature of those assessments (leading) courts to direct us to do more extensive reviews in the form of EIS. We have done that.
“Our belief is the reason for the courts directing us to do that is they believe the EIS ought to ‘inform’ the process going forward. We produced an extensive EIS in connection with alfalfa: 2,300 pages. In it, we identified a number of areas, put a draft EIS out for comment, received a number of comments back. In an effort to be responsive to those comments we took a look at various alternatives.”
And once a decision on Roundup Ready alfalfa is released, more comments will come, said Vilsack.
“When we proposed the various alternatives, it created and generated a dialogue between differing interests. I think it’s been a positive experience for those who have participated. Why? Because it’s allowed us to better understand the unique nature of alfalfa, to better understand the greater awareness of stewardship contracting taking place in the market. It’s allowed us to have questions raised about the process of verifying those stewardship contracts. And it’s underscored the importance of trying to build more of a trusting relationship between various interests of agriculture.
“Perhaps most positive of all, it has helped USDA begin to look at tools outside this process to help further this sense of cooperation. For example, issues have been raised about the purity of seed and whether there will be an assurance of its purity. (That way) anyone who wants to do organic or identity-preserved non-GE will always have that option. We can play a role in that.”
As for international negotiations, trading partners and exports, Vilsack said he’s always taken the long view. “When I first came into office, we developed an overall strategy for how we might be better positioning biotechnology in the international community. That involves better public diplomacy, better articulation of the benefits of biotechnology. It involves identifying countries … more receptive of biotechnology and encouraging them to speak with their counterparts, whether in Africa or Asia, about the important role that biotechnology can play in food security.”