U.S. plans to cut GMO crop oversight

Efforts to write benefits for biotech seed companies into U.S. legislation, including the 2013 Farm Bill, are sparking a backlash from groups that say the multiple measures would severely limit U.S. oversight of genetically modified crops.

From online petitions to face-to-face lobbying on Capitol Hill, an array of consumer and environmental organizations and individuals are ringing alarm bells over moves they say will eradicate badly needed safety checks on crops genetically modified to withstand herbicides, pests and pesticides.

The measures could speed the path to market for big biotech companies like Monsanto and Dow Chemical that make billions of dollars from genetically altered corn, soybeans, cotton and other crops.

“They are trying to change the rules,” said George Kimbrell, senior attorney at the Center for Food Safety, which has lawsuits pending against government regulators for failing to follow the law in approving certain biotech crops. “It is to the detriment of good governance, farmers and to the environment.”

Monsanto Rider

As early as next week the U.S. House of Representatives could take up one of the more controversial measures — a provision included in the 2013 Agriculture Appropriations bill known as Section 733 that would allow biotech crops to be planted even if courts rule they were approved illegally.

Opponents call it the “Monsanto Rider” because Monsanto’s genetically altered alfalfa and sugar beets have been subject to court challenges for illegal regulatory approvals.

Even more sweeping changes limiting the U.S. regulatory system for GMO crops have been added to the 2013 U.S. Farm Bill, and biotech crop defenders say they have broad support for the changes. The current system is too cumbersome and slow for biotech companies trying to bring new technology to U.S. agriculture, and lengthy legal requirements currently in place invite costly lawsuits, they say.

Farm Bill fight

Although the appropriations measure limiting judicial authority over GMO crop regulatory actions raised the ire of opponents, the Farm Bill measures drawn up by the House Agriculture Committee are fuelling vociferous opposition.

Last week 40 food businesses, retailers, family farmers and others sent a protest letter to House Agriculture Committee leaders calling on them to strike pro-biotech provisions added to the draft of the U.S. Farm Bill. The measures followed several court rulings that regulators did not follow legal requirements in approving some biotech crops, and would nullify just such legal requirements in the future.

Environmental hazards associated with biotech crops, including the rapid rise of “superweeds” that cannot be killed with traditional herbicides, would not have to be taken under consideration by regulators in new approvals, the critics say.

A controversial new type of corn developed by Dow AgroSciences, altered to allow more liberal spraying of the widely used 2,4-D broadleaf herbicide, could sidestep regulatory hurdles currently in place and gain swift approval under the new law.

The measures compress the time frame and scope of topics for review of crops and force backdoor approval of GMO crops if the USDA fails to meet the deadlines, critics say. Also, most notably, they would allow for the first time an acceptable level of contamination of conventional crops by biotech crops without recourse.

“The Farm Bill riders together would eliminate the much needed review of these novel crops, forcing hasty approvals in advancing the chemical industry’s interests in selling their products,” the National Family Farm Coalition, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Center for Environmental Health and others said in a letter sent July 11 to House Agriculture Committee leaders.

The National Grain and Feed Association last week also expressed alarm, saying it and grain handlers, millers and processors and some food industry players are worried the measures could have “unintended consequences in domestic and export markets.”

Monsanto, Dow and other defenders of the planned changes say they will make the regulatory process easier and faster while ensuring biotech crops are safe and effective.

“If the United States and the world are to reap the benefits of plant biotechnology, we need timely and science-based authorizations of the innovative biotech products that are in the technology pipeline,” said Dow spokeswoman Kenda Resler-Friend. “Weed resistance challenges are getting worse by the day — compounded by the drought at hand — so it is essential to get technology into the hands of farmers who desperately need it.”

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