Since their introduction, genetically engineered, plants and animals have been praised and vilified.
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Late last year, USDA issued a rule paving the way for GE alfalfa plantings. But, there was a catch.
In the decision, three options were given for final approval after a 30-day comment period. The one favored by USDA -- option 3 -- limits the distance new alfalfa can be planted from its conventional counterpart. And therein lies the rub...
At issue is not the policy per se, but the precedent set by the previously unpublished rule. If the so-called "third option" is adopted then other GE products could potentially be approved with special conditions that would restrict free use by farmers. The new alfalfa variety has been certified as posing no plant pest risk by the EPA, FDA and USDA.
In response to farmer complaints, the House Agriculture Committee this week, called Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to testify.
Chair Frank Lucas, House Agriculture Committee: "We are concerned option three would have negative impacts on all US Agriculture. Concerns have been raised that his option was developed to prevent future lawsuits by addressing coexistence between conventional and organic production. That is a political objective and is outside the scope of legal authority."
Among the lawsuits inherited by Secretary Vilsack was one for GE sweet potatoes, which is still moving through the courts and one for Round-up Ready alfalfa. Vilsack cited his authority under the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service or APHIS to regulate or deregulate GE plants.
Sec. Tom Vilsack, USDA: "The procedural legal challenges related to GE sugar beets and GE alfalfa have taken years. APHIS made its initial decision to deregulate GE alfalfa in June 2005. Yet here we are nearly six years later with the process not yet concluded. As these cases continue, the market uncertainty increases, and those involved in agriculture lack sufficient guidance for planning and determining how to react or which products to use."
The new alfalfa variety has been certified as posing no plant pest risk by the EPA, FDA and USDA.
Chuck Connor, CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, also gave testimony. Connor, the Former Acting Secretary of Agriculture during the Bush Administration, says his group represents a majority of the nation's two million farmers.
Chuck Connor, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives: "It is my belief, attempting to mediate disputes between interest groups in conjunction with a specific regulatory decision for a biotech product would set a precedent that is in direct conflict with the long-standing adherence, and the rule of law, to science-based regulation of biotechnology crops in the U.S."
The "so-called," third option restricts planting of the new variety within five miles of non-GE alfalfa. According to Conner, this restricts planting on 20 percent of the acres where the forage crop is normally grown.
The 30-day comment period for the controversial rule will expire later this month. There is no word on which option will be adopted.