Thursday morning, the House Agriculture Committee held a public forum focused on the biotechnology product regulatory approval process. During the forum, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack focused his discussion on three areas: USDA's Biotechnology regulatory program, challenges facing the biotechnology review process and glyphosate-resistant alfalfa.
The Secretary said biotechnology provides farmers, ranchers, and growers a range of ways to meet consumer needs and preferences. But there are real, practical difficulties for some non-GE producers to meet the need of their markets. These conflicts have produced ongoing litigation and resulted in uncertainty for producers and technology innovators. The Secretary said these problems must be addressed, so the potential contributions of all sectors of agriculture can be fully realized.
Secretary Vilsack said USDA's regulatory program, is not a static program. To farmers, ranchers, and growers, it is one that has grown and evolved as technology. often driven by the needs and demands of producers, has changed. The Secretary also defended USDA's approach to GE alfalfa. Vilsack said he wanted to reassure everyone that USDA will continue to adhere to a scientific, risk based decision making process and that decisions will continue to be driven by science.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., pressed USDA and Agriculture Secretary Vilsack to fully deregulate Roundup Ready alfalfa. Roundup Ready alfalfa was found to pose no risk to health or safety. Lucas is backed by the National Corn Growers Association which supports the option to fully deregulate glyphosate tolerant alfalfa events J101 and J163, as published in the Final Environmental Impact Statement this past December.
Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the Ranking Member of the House Ag Committee, said it is worth noting the completed Environmental Impact Statement on alfalfa is one step in a drawn out process that has taken decisions about alfalfa production largely out of the hands of the agriculture community and moved them into the courtroom, litigated by lawyers and decided by judges who have no connection to agriculture.
Addressing Option 3, a partial deregulation in the EIS, Peterson said he understands the concerns of those who think the restrictions could have negative long-term consequences for biotech product development and approval.
"It is a highly unusual step that arguably creates more questions than answers with respect to the science-based regulatory process, our trade policy with respect to biotechnology, and perhaps even the re-examination of previously approved biotech traits," Peterson said. "I don't think we are completely looking at the big picture unless we recognize that endless litigation is a fact of life under the current biotech approval process. And if the only answer to the alfalfa question is one that leads us right back into the courtroom, where USDA's track record in recent years is very poor, then I'm not sure how that benefits biotechnology in the long run."