Monsanto Co.’s genetically engineered seeds were endorsed by Republicans now holding power in the House Agriculture Committee who say opponents of the technology see dangers where there are none.
“A product that has repeatedly been found safe should be deregulated,” panel Chairman Frank Lucas, Republican of Oklahoma, said during a committee meeting today to review the approval process for biotech products.
Yesterday, Lucas and Senate Republicans Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Pat Roberts of Kansas sent Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack a letter asking Vilsack’s department to “deregulate without conditions” genetically engineered alfalfa. Vilsack was scheduled to speak at today’s meeting.
The Department of Agriculture is considering whether to allow planting of the biotech crop, and conversations USDA officials are having with opponents of genetically modified seeds may “politicize” the assessment, Lucas said in the letter. The department’s decision is expected after Jan. 24.
Last month, the USDA released an environmental-impact statement recommending that the alfalfa planting be allowed. In a nod to biotech opponents, it said the plants may have to be geographically restricted and kept away from other crops.
In 2007, U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer in San Francisco halted planting of biotech alfalfa until the USDA completed its environmental study. The U.S. Supreme Court in June overturned the ban while stopping short of explicitly allowing farmers to begin planting the seed. In a separate case last year, genetically modified sugar-beet planting was also suspended.
St. Louis-based Monsanto, the world’s biggest seed company, doesn’t produce the alfalfa seeds itself. Instead, it licenses the technology to seed makers including Forage Genetics International. The seeds are modified to tolerate Monsanto’s Roundup Ready herbicide.
Vilsack told the lawmaker that the frequency with which biotech crops are challenged in court requires a new approach that encourages agribusinesses and opponents, including organic farmers, to settle their differences before resorting to litigation.
“We have to figure out how to build the levels of trust” that let growers of biotech crops coexist with farmers who don’t, he said. “These are all great marketing opportunities.”
Chuck Connor, a former acting agriculture secretary under President George W. Bush, said the regulatory process was not the place for negotiating political positions.
“Coexistence of all crops is a marketing issue, not a safety issue,” said Connor, now head of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, a Washington-based lobbying group.
Opponents of the technology have said the effects the seeds may have on the environment and human health are unknown. Growers of organic crops, which by definition must not include lab-manipulated genes, have been concerned that nearby biotech fields will contaminate their own products.
Genetically modified seeds are already widely used in U.S. farming. About 86 percent of the country’s corn and 93 of soybeans were planted with the products last year, and cotton and other crops are also seeing increasing use.
Today’s meeting was the first led by Lucas. The panel features 16 new Republicans and seven new Democrats among its 46 members, 26 Republicans and 20 Democrats.