Wall Street Journal: Ag Department Uproots Science

Farmer Gene

The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial on December 27 about the USDA’s continuing efforts to shape a coexistence policy:

Vilsack seeks out politically congenial scientific opinion

If the Obama Administration is trying to lose its antibusiness reputation, you wouldn’t know it from the latest shakedown at the Department of Agriculture. In a move that caused jaws to drop in the farm industry, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has invited activists and biotech critics to shape the agency’s regulatory decision on a biotech product. If the precedent stands, it could permanently politicize a system that is supposed to be based on science. 

This tale began in 2006, when an activist group called the Center for Food Safety sued the Department of Agriculture to stop the distribution of a Monsanto alfalfa variety called Roundup Ready, which is designed to withstand a popular herbicide. In 2007, a federal judge in the Northern District of California issued an injunction to halt the sale of the product, pending a review and an environmental impact statement by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service branch of USDA. 

The review finally landed with a thud last week, but not because the product had been unmasked as a “plant pest” or had dangers for human or livestock. According to the Department’s environmental review, the alfalfa was judged substantially equivalent to other varieties without red flags for regulators. But instead of taking the news as a green light to let the alfalfa on the market, the Agriculture chieftains are calling in biotech critics to suggest ways the product might be deregulated “with conditions.” 

According to activists, the Roundup Ready crop menaces the purity of nearby organic fields, potentially cross-pollinating and threatening the livelihood of organic farmers. To mitigate the possible contamination, organic producers have suggested mandatory minimum planting distances and a USDA administered fund that would compensate organic farmers who were harmed by which way the wind was blowing. Some have also suggested a system whereby traditional farmers accept liability for any contamination of organic crops. 

If this sounds like vintage antibiotech activist fare with the imprimatur of the USDA, you’re getting the picture. By suggesting that industry and activist groups negotiate compromises in advance of the final ruling on whether to deregulate, Mr. Vilsack is using the Department’s regulatory authority as leverage against businesses whose products are overwhelmingly regulated by USDA. 

It gets worse. Mr. Vilsack’s authority in the regulatory decision-making process is based on the assumption of sound scientific data. But according to people who attended the meeting last Monday, the USDA Secretary told the assembled groups that science itself is subjective, and that he could have three different groups bring him three different supposedly scientific opinions. 

Momentum for the new regulatory mischief is also coming from Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, whose background helping develop the USDA’s organic labelling guidelines gives her kinship with biotech critics who support minimum planting distances—a plan that would impose a heavy burden on farmers who use the products. As Idaho-based company Forage Genetics pointed out at the meeting on Monday, roughly 20% of the alfalfa hay acres in the country would fall into those “no plant zones,” leaving those farmers “disenfranchised from the benefits of biotechnology and alfalfa because of the accident of where they happen to be farming.” 

Even within the Administration, Mr. Vilsack may encounter some pushback from those who believe his position oversteps his legal authority to regulate under the Plant Protection Act. Among those with reason to be less than pleased with the USDA’s antics are the folks at the office of the U.S. Trade Representative, who have seen similar antibiotech strains in trade disputes with the European Union.

While it may not be one of the major biotech crops, alfalfa is a regulatory test that could open the gate for similarly politically driven negotiations on non-organic crops from sugar beets to soybeans.

If nonscience criteria are introduced as considerations for allowing the sale of biotech crops, the effect would be disastrous for the USDA’s regulatory reputation. We hope Secretary Vilsack makes his decision based on science, not politics.

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