On Dec. 20, 17 people from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including Secretary Tom Vilsack, 10 from non-governmental organizations, 10 from seed and food firms and 18 from industry groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation and the Biotech Industry Organization met at USDA to discuss “Alfalfa Production Co-Existence.”
The benign title belied what many saw as the core topic of the three-and-a-half hour meeting: Big Ag’s worry that the Obama administration was redefining government’s role in approving new biotechnology for the farm.
The meeting began with Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan asking for “input” from “stakeholders” to help determine the future of “GE alfalfa.” Genetically engineered alfalfa had been in regulatory limbo since 2006 as Big Ag and the growing organic movement sparred in federal court over GE’s role in the nation’s fourth largest acreage crop.
The delay carried the fight from the biotech-friendly Bush administration into the greener, more food-centric Obama Administration. It also gave biotech opponents time to learn how to tie up the regulatory process in federal courts and federal red tape.
The Dec. 20 meeting was to sort through three USDA proposals to get the process back on track and, hopefully, finished. Those three proposals included: deny GE alfalfa a place in the market; approve it across the entire market; or somehow come up with a way for it to “coexist” commercially and organically with yet-to-be determined restrictions.
This third way was new but, as Secretary Vilsack explained, maybe necessary because USDA’s “regulatory system has been… challenged as it tries to keep up with the rapid adoption of GE products… (while) there is rapid growth of organic and identity-preserved non-GE sectors.”
(The meeting’s transcript can be read at www.aphis.usda.gov/newsroom/content/2010/12/printable/alfalfa_meeting_12_20_10_transcript.pdf.)
So, the secretary suggested, everyone needs to “focus on practical approaches to coexistence, and not on the relative merits of one kind of production or another.”
After all, he added, “Our job here is not pick winners or losers, it’s to figure out how everybody can be a winner.”
Big business, however, is in the business of picking winners and they believed they had one in GE alfalfa.
Several biz reps jumped on Vilsack’s “coexistence” idea to note they were not at the meeting to just talk about hay; they were there to make hay. Coexistence, they noted, threatened new science, adequate food production and global biotech leadership.
Organic groups asked Vilsack to go slow. While they liked the coexistence idea, all wanted more time and information on how it would be implemented and work. The meeting ended with promises of more discussions before USDA was scheduled to chose one of the three options by late January.
But Big Ag didn’t spend the holiday season opening gifts and watching football.
Shortly after the new Congress convened in early January, new House Ag Chairman Frank Lucas of Oklahoma announced his committee would hold a Jan. 20 “forum” on USDA’s biotech regulatory process.
On Jan. 19, Lucas and two senior Republicans from the Senate Ag Committee, Pat Roberts of Kansas and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, sent Vilsack a letter complaining that his “third option” in the pending GE alfalfa decision, coexistence, was “a significant departure from existing policy” that “politicizes the regulatory process.”
The secretary came to Capitol Hill for the Jan. 20 “forum” and, shortly thereafter, talk of coexistence evaporated. On Jan. 27, Vilsack announced a “non-regulated” approval of GE alfalfa.
On Feb. 4, USDA announced GE sugar beet production would continue, despite earlier worries over its potential impact. On Feb. 11, USDA approved a new GE corn variety claimed to enhance ethanol yield.
Some meeting back in December, eh? While the secretary hoped coexistence might have a role in biotech, he learned, again, it has no role whatsoever in Congress.