Tuesday, July 10, 2012

USDA speeds release

USDA speeds release of data on biotech crops
By Mateusz Perkowski
Capital Press
July 10, 2012

The USDA is speeding up the public release of data about genetically engineered crops submitted by biotech developers.

Under the agency’s new policy, petitions seeking deregulation for transgenic crops will be disclosed when the agency decides the submissions are complete.

Until now, the USDA has kept these petitions confidential until the agency had finished the draft versions of its deregulation decisions.

As part of the change, the agency has made public nine petitions for transgenic crops — four for soybeans, two for corn, two for canola and one for apples.

The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which regulates biotech crops, said the “improved review process” will give the public more time to comment about potential environmental and economic issues.

Biotech critics remain skeptical about the effects of the policy change while proponents hope the decision will speed up approvals for transgenic crops and make their commercialization less controversial.

Earlier disclosures about biotech crops will enhance the “transparency” of the deregulation process, said Karen Batra, director of food and agriculture communications for the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

“It gives the agency more time to deal with these comments,” she said.

By giving the USDA more time to address concerns, the agency’s environmental reviews will likely be stronger and hopefully less prone to legal challenges, Batra said.

The Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit group that has filed several lawsuits against USDA over transgenic crops, is doubtful that earlier disclosures will meaningfully affect the agency’s review process.

“I don’t think this proposal will do that in any way,” said Bill Freese, science policy analyst for the group.

The main problem with the USDA’s deregulation process is the limits the agency has placed on its authority to regulate transgenic crops, he said.

Before allowing a transgenic crop to be grown without restriction, the agency must complete a plant pest risk assessment and an environmental review.

However, the agency believes the environmental review has no influence on its deregulation decision so long as the crop is determined not to be a plant pest risk, said Freese.

“We’ve long considered that illegitimate,” he said. “I don’t see any change in that faulty reasoning.”

The scope of the USDA’s authority over biotechnology is expected to be decided by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a lawsuit over transgenic alfalfa, Freese said.

The Center for Food Safety claimed the crop’s deregulation was unlawful because it will lead to the development of herbicide-resistant weeds and cross-pollinate with conventional alfalfa.

The USDA countered that its “hands were tied” because the agency had to deregulate the crop once it was found not to pose a pest risk for plants.

Last year, a federal judge sided with the agency and allowed the deregulation to stand. Biotech critics appealed the ruling and the case is now pending before the 9th Circuit.

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