Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman had a busy week. At a Congressional hearing, she said the Bush administration backed the two-year delay in implementing COOL. At the same forum, she defended USDA's handling of the Mad Cow case. We'll have more on that later.
Then on Thursday, Veneman announced USDA's intention to update its biotechnology rules. The new regs will cover the importation, interstate movement and environmental release of certain genetically modified organisms.
Any change in regulations could affect millions of acres of future corn, cotton, and soybean crops. And yet, concerns over the inadvertent spread of GMOs have dogged the biotech industry from the beginning. Indeed, at home and abroad, those concerns have fostered everything from scientific study on GMO confinement ... to international threats of seed sale restrictions.
Since the commercial release of genetically modified organisms 20 years ago, there has been concern about the ultimate effect on the environment. This week, the National Academies of Science' National Research Council, a private non-profit agency, released a scientific paper examining both the impact and prevention of the unintended spread of GMOs.
The group's recommendations included development of more than one method of containment, that biotech developers consider the potential social and economic effects of an accidental release on the environment, and the need to keep an open line of communication between the public and the biotech industry.
The committee contends the best method for meeting these goals is to have an interdisciplinary group work on the solutions.
Already, the use of GM crops has brought about an unintended spread of a different type: the spread of illegally acquired Roundup Ready soybeans. In Argentina, farmers have been saving seeds and then keeping or selling them to other farmers. Much to its chagrin, most of those seeds were from Monsanto's signature line of biotech beans.
The world biotech leader's problem stems from a loophole in an Argentine law allowing farmers to save seeds. During the 2003 crop season, it is estimated that only 18% of the crop grown by the world's number three bean producer was planted with seeds purchased from companies like Monsanto.
Facing the loss of $75 million in technology fees, Monsanto's reaction, much to the dismay of Argentine farmers, has been to discontinue the sale of GM beans in the South American country.
The dilemma for Argentine farm groups and officials centers around a desire for access to the new technology while trying to avoid paying what they call expensive tech fees.
Monsanto has indicated it will not withhold sales if government officials create a legal framework that satisfies the needs of all parties concerned.