USDA to prepare environmental impact statements for GE crops

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service plans to prepare two separate environmental impact statements to better inform decision-making regarding the regulatory status of crops genetically engineered to be resistant to the herbicides known as 2,4 dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) and Dicamba.

APHIS’ Notices of Intent to prepare these EIS’s will officially be published in the Federal Register in the near future, and each notice will be accompanied by a 60-day public comment period. These are the first GE plants developed to be resistant to these specific herbicides, which have been approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and have been safely and widely used across the country since the 1960s to control weeds on crop and non-crop sites.

If approved, these GE plants would provide farmers the flexibility for new applications of these herbicides, while also offering farmers additional crop planting options, according to USDA. For the 2,4-D resistant plants (one corn and two soybean varieties), APHIS has previously made available for public review and comment petitions by Dow to deregulate the products, along with draft environmental assessments and plant pest risk assessments for two out of the three products.

Public response

APHIS received approximately 8,200 comments, including petitions signed by more than 400,000 people in response to these documents.

Soybean farmers expressed their disappointment with the announcement, saying the move could delay the introduction of new products containing these herbicide-tolerant traits to the market for an additional two to four years, according to industry sources.

Danny Murphy, a soybean farmer and president of the American Soybean Association from Canton, Miss., said in a released statement the association “is extremely disappointed in USDA’s decision that will serve only to place another barrier between soybean farmers and the tools and technologies farmers need to sustainably grow more food, fiber and fuel for our nation, all while using less of its resources.

“Farmers rely on our federal agencies to make regulatory decisions based on sound science. There is no reason for APHIS to conduct an additional EIS on top of the already-comprehensive environmental assessment that has been completed for these products.”

For the Dicamba-resistant plants (one soybean and one cotton variety), APHIS previously made available for public review and comment petitions by Monsanto to deregulate the products.

Comment period

The comment period on the petition for the cotton variety closed April 29. APHIS has received more than 500 individual comments and 31,000 form letters regarding these two petitions.

Comments received in response to all of the 2,4-D and Dicamba documents have been similar in scope, ranging from the importance of making additional herbicide-resistant crops available for producers to focusing on the potential increased volume of herbicides containing 2,4-D and Dicamba and their movement onto non-target crops in surrounding areas, as well as the potential for the development of herbicide-resistant weeds.

Following rules

Under the National Environmental Policy Act, APHIS is required to evaluate the potential environmental impacts that could result from a deregulation of new GE plants by the Agency. If APHIS finds that its potential regulatory decision may significantly affect the quality of the human environment, the Agency must prepare an EIS before making a decision on the proposed Federal action.

With regard to these new herbicide-resistant plants, through its analysis of information submitted by the developers, as well as public comments, APHIS has determined that its regulatory decisions may significantly affect the quality of the human environment.

APHIS therefore believes it necessary under NEPA to prepare these two EIS’s to further assist the agency in evaluating any potential environmental impacts before it makes a final determination regarding the products’ regulatory status.

APHIS plans to host upcoming public meetings that will be publicized through the Federal Register and the agency’s website.

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