The House Agriculture Committee held a public forum to hear testimony and question Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack about his Department’s process for approving Roundup Ready alfalfa and the implications it could have on future biotech approvals.

Vilsack was called before Members of the Committee following deep concern in the agriculture community about USDA’s announcement it might partially deregulate the crop, imposing isolation distances and other limitations that would impinge on the right of up to 20 percent of alfalfa growers to produce the genetically modified crop.

USDA has not yet announced if it will choose partial deregulation or full deregulation, but Vilsack indicated a choice could come very soon following a review period for the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) analyzing the crop, which ends Monday.

Many mainstream agriculture groups, including NAWG, have contended that if USDA’s analysis finds that biotech alfalfa is not a plant pest – as the EIS did – USDA must, by law, deregulate it.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) backed up this opinion at the forum this week and in a letter he sent to USDA on Wednesday with Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), the presumed former and prospective Ranking Members of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

In that letter, they told Vilsack USDA has no authority to impose restrictions under the Plant Protection Act (PPA) if the crop in question is determined not to be a plant pest.

“The third alternative steps beyond the scope of the Act and is a poor substitute for existing options available for farmers to amicably resolve the concerns regarding co-existence of agriculture biotechnology, conventional and organic crops,” they wrote.

In his opening statement, House Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) stopped short of saying he believes the PPA is being violated, but expressed serious concern about the amount of litigation biotech crop deregulation is bringing on USDA and how that affects farmers looking to plant biotech seeds.

Chuck Conner, a former acting and deputy secretary at USDA and the current president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, was the other witness at Thursday’s forum.

Noting that “no court has ever held that a biotechnology crop presents a risk to health, safety or the environment, nor has any court ever directed [USDA] to regulate coexistence” in 30 years of lawsuits on biotechnology, Conner told Members that a science- and risk-based regulatory process is essential for the acceptance of biotech crops – which is essentially the message NAWG and other agriculture groups have been working to communicate to USDA and Members of Congress overseeing USDA’s activities.

USDA was compelled to undertake the EIS, which outlines the scientific impact on the environment of Roundup Ready alfalfa, as part of an ongoing lawsuit concerning its original deregulation of the alfalfa in 2005 based on a separate environmental review.

The Department issued the EIS, which took 47 months to complete, in late December. At that time, the Department said for the first time it is considering partial deregulation, which is unprecedented in nearly two decades of biotech crop review.

NAWG has been working closely with other agricultural groups to follow this issue and express concerns to both USDA and Congress.

While there is no commercialized biotech wheat anywhere in the world, the wheat industry believes its introduction is necessary to increase productivity, attract acres back to the crop and feed a growing global population sustainably, and NAWG is deeply concerned about changes to the regulatory process that could invite lawsuits or prevent farmers from planting the crops they prefer.

For more information from NAWG, including a letter sent from the Association and other ag groups to the White House on this issue, please visit www.wheatworld.org/biotech.

Vilsack’s full testimony from the House forum this week is available online at http://agriculture.house.gov/pdf/public-forum/Vilsack.pdf.

Conner’s full testimony is available at http://agriculture.house.gov/pdf/public-forum/Conner.pdf.