IN the federal government's continuing resolution, a provision coined the "biotech rider" has created concern that the Administration and Congress are "trying to slip something through at the last minute" and has made the delicate conversation between organic and biotechnology supporters more difficult, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack testified during a Senate agriculture appropriations hearing May 9.
The biotech rider was included first in the House Agriculture Committee farm bill and then in legislation to provide funding for the remainder of the government's 2013 fiscal year. It has been widely supported by agricultural commodity groups but caused a firestorm of opposition from consumer and environmental groups after it was passed in the continuing resolution.
The provision gives the secretary of agriculture authority to introduce temporary stewardship requirements that allow for the partial deregulation of a biotech product while legal challenges are pending on a prior science-based determination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that the product is safe for cultivation.
Vilsack said the provision wasn't something the agency asked for, and he doesn't think it's even necessary. USDA had previously imposed the authority and interim measures for glyphosate-tolerant sugar beets in 2011.
Because the agency has been able to act out what the provision provides, with the secretary already having the authority to make special stewardship recommendations, Vilsack said he has many questions and even concerns regarding the legality of the rider when it comes to temporary injunctions.
Vilsack noted that after the sugar beet case, he revived the Advisory Committee on Biotechnology & 21st Century Agriculture (AC21) to examine the issues of coexistence in agriculture (among biotech, conventional and organic production).
In response to a question from Sen. Roy Blunt (R., Mo.), who some believe may have helped write the provision's language in 2012, Vilsack said there is a "delicate conversation" between different camps within agriculture from those who are strongly committed to new technologies and those who want to grow organic crops or use different production methods.
Vilsack said he's concerned that the provision will get "reinterpreted, misinterpreted, expanded and concerns expressed about the real intent while trying to have this delicate conversation."
"Why stir up the pot if you don't have to? This doesn't do anything that I can't already do," he said. "We're going to make decisions based on science and law, and this (rider) creates some confusion and makes it harder to have that conversation."
AC21 is currently focused on helping determine how those different production segments can get along better than they do today, Vilsack said. He added that USDA strongly promotes coexistence, and AC21 is working to better understand compensation for commingling and the actual extent of fears of commingling in the real world.