House Agriculture Bill Would Allow Biotech Planting Amid Legal Review
07/11/2012| 05:38pm US/Eastern
By Ian Berry
A provision in a U.S. House agriculture appropriations bill would allow farmers to plant seeds with genetically modified traits even as final legal approval of a trait is still under appeal.
Proponents said the provision would prevent costly delays for farmers and seed companies such as Monsanto Co. (>> Monsanto Company), which spend millions of dollars to bring any one genetically modified trait to the market. Critics of genetically modified crops said they pose a threat to the organic-farming industry and remove an important safeguard.
It is unclear when the provision, and the appropriations bill, will be considered by the House, but "we can expect a big fight once it does get to the floor," said Colin O'Neil, regulatory-policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental group that opposes the provision.
A committee passed the bill in June, and congressional officials said it is unclear when it will be heard by the entire House.
Some segments of the organic industry oppose expansion of genetically modified crops, out of concern those traits could spread into their own fields, threatening their organic certification. More broadly, opponents of genetically modified foods said the technology could cause unforeseen health problems and harm the environment through increased use of herbicides and the development of pests that are resistant to the traits.
The biotech-seed industry said the provision would prevent a repeat of the delays surrounding genetically modified alfalfa, planting of which was halted after the Center for Food Safety won a federal-court decision requiring planting be delayed while the U.S. Department of Agriculture conducted a further review.
Planting of genetically modified alfalfa was delayed more than five years by the lawsuit filed by the Center for Food Safety and a group of organic farmers, as the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. In June 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that a lower court erred in issuing an injunction barring planting of the seed until the USDA had finished a more-thorough environmental assessment. The USDA finally approved unrestricted planting of the alfalfa in January 2011.
Such delays are a major inconvenience and potentially costly for seed companies and for farmers who have purchased the seed, said Karen Batra, spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which represents the biotech-seed industry, including Monsanto and E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co. (>> E I Du Pont De Nemours And Co).
"We can't have these business decisions interrupted because somebody sued the USDA to pursue a political agenda," Ms. Batra said.
Farm groups such as the American Soybean Association support the provision, which was introduced by Rep. Jack Kingston (R., Ga.). The soybean-trade group said legal challenges are "discouraging innovation in agriculture and unnecessarily putting farmers at financial risk."
In addition to safety concerns, the Center for Food Safety's Mr. O'Neil said opponents, which include the American Civil Liberties Union, are arguing the provision is an attack on separation of powers, and "has a precedent-setting limitation on judicial review."
The battle over regulation of genetically modified crops is also taking place in the U.S. House version of the farm bill, which includes a provision that streamlines the review process. The industry said the changes would prevent frivolous lawsuits based on procedure rather than environmental health, while opponents said the changes would prevent the USDA from considering important information and would impose an unreasonable deadline on the agency to make decisions on new seeds.
Write to Ian Berry at email@example.com.