Comments by Secretary Vilsack Regarding Availability of a Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for Roundup Ready Alfalfa

Press Release

By:  Thomas Vilsack
Date: Dec. 16, 2010
Location: Unknown

As prepared for delivery USDA Office of Communications

Good afternoon, and thank you all for joining us.

Today, we are making available a final environmental impact statement, or EIS, that evaluates the potential environmental effects of deregulating alfalfa that has been genetically engineered to be resistant to the herbicide commercially known as Roundup.

Let me say right off the bat what I think makes this final EIS unique--and I believe, stronger. It lists two co-preferred alternatives. This means that we are seriously looking at these two alternatives, which are fully evaluated in the EIS, as potential options for the decision we will make regarding the request to deregulate Roundup Ready alfalfa.

APHIS will make its decision in a forthcoming Record of Decision, no sooner than 30 days after the final EIS is published in the Federal Register. During this time, the public will have the opportunity to review the final EIS.

In total, we considered three alternatives in the final EIS: to maintain Roundup Ready alfalfa's status as a regulated article, to deregulate RR alfalfa; or to deregulate RR alfalfa with geographic restrictions and isolation distances for the production of Roundup Ready alfalfa.

The two preferred alternatives selected in the final EIS are deregulation as one option and the other deregulation accompanied by a combination of geographic restrictions and isolation distances on the production of GE alfalfa seed and, in some locations, on GE hay. These measures would help to protect the production of non-GE alfalfa seed.

Let me explain how the final EIS arrived at these preferred alternatives.

First, without a doubt, the final EIS was made stronger thanks to the many comments we received from stakeholders and the public on the draft EIS APHIS published in December, 2009. If you recall, that draft EIS analyzed only two alternatives: maintaining Roundup Ready alfalfa's status as a regulated product under APHIS' regulations, or deregulating the product in full.

However, we heard from many commenters who asked that APHIS expand its analysis regarding the environmental and related economic impacts of deregulation and, in doing so, consider additional measures that would mitigate those impacts.

And it's no secret as well that in several recent court cases challenging APHIS' decisions to deregulate certain lines of GE agricultural products, we heard very clearly from plaintiffs, as well as judges, that, while the Agency made sound scientific determinations, what was found lacking was thorough assessment of the potential environmental and related economic impacts.

We took these messages from the public comments and the court cases extremely seriously. We went back and asked ourselves, what, in response, can we do differently? What can we do to put more options on the table and give us more flexibility to meet the needs of the companies developing GE products, the growers who are making the choice to use GE products, and the growers who have made the choice to farm organically or to produce non-GE products and believe there's some risk to their operations and their industries from the GE products in question?

In selecting two options, we now have a final EIS that presents and evaluates alternatives that we believe are sound and applicable in the real world. We know that seed companies are already looking at the kinds of stewardship practices evaluated in the EIS' third alternative right now. These options give us better choices for addressing the challenges and complexities we face today.

Earlier, I spoke with representatives with various perspectives on this issue. I talked with representatives from the companies and grower groups seeking deregulation and commercialization of Roundup Ready alfalfa, and representatives from the organic sector who see full deregulation of this GE crop as impacting the purity of the organic seed supply. I laid out for them our rationale for the preferred alternatives in the final EIS, and I stressed how serious we are about looking at these options as we move forward and consider our decision in the forthcoming Record of Decision.

I also invited these groups to a meeting with me in my office in the very near future to start a dialogue I hope will help resolve the problems we all face together. I think we are at a critical juncture in terms of regulating the products of GE agriculture, and at the same time supporting other segments of production.

Over the last two decades, we've seen rapid adoption by farmers of new technologies, like biotech. Biotechnology holds great promise for agriculture here in the United States, and around the world. There has also been strong growth in the organic sector and in non-genetically engineered production, to meet the requirements of specific markets here as well as abroad.

The rise and growth of all these sectors is great for U.S. agriculture. It means farmers have a range of ways to meet consumer needs and preferences both here and around the world. It means they can grow their operations and contribute to the success and vitality of rural America.

But, at the same time, another result we're seeing is that all too often there's conflict, or, at best, an uneasy coexistence between the different ways of growing crops. The developers and users of GE products want the ability to use the technology to help us feed our country and the world. And the organic and non-GE sectors are sensitive to the unintended presence of GE material in those product streams.

We also have a regulatory system that over the last two decades has done a very good job of safely bringing GE agricultural products to market. There's absolutely no doubt on our part of the safety of the many products our regulatory system has approved. But I think it's accurate to say that today, our system is going through some real growing pains as it tries to keep pace with the rapid adoption of GE products by the market and farmers, coupled with the rapid growth of organic and non-GE agriculture sectors. As I said, this has greatly increased the complexity of the issues we face in making decisions, along with increased scrutiny and challenge to the assessments and determinations we make.

The situation, as I see it, is untenable for agriculture. Right now we have growers needing to order seed and make planting decisions, but the uncertainty is making those decisions extremely difficult and, at times, costly. We also have companies and researchers who have devoted significant resources to developing safe products that can help us meet our food production and security needs but find themselves instead fighting in the courts. And lastly, our regulatory system has been strained by legal challenges.

We shouldn't let decisions regarding coexistence be set by litigation. I think we can do a better job for all of agriculture. By doing this we can foster innovation and make the best use of our science to meet the demands of the 21st century.

This final EIS is a first step toward looking at the ways we can achieve effective coexistence between all sectors of agriculture. It's a conversation that needs to happen now and we are not going to shy away from having it.

Here's our starting point: we see a key role for each of the sectors in meeting our global and domestic food needs, increasing sustainability, and enhancing farm profitability and economic development. All three segments--GE, organic, and non-GE--are vital, important, and a part of rural America's success. All three sectors should be able to thrive together. This is what I mean when I say coexistence.

We do not have a preconceived notion of how best to strengthen coexistence. We will, however, partner with all those who want to roll up their sleeves and work with us to find common sense solutions to today's challenges. And we will do so openly and transparently.

With that, let me take a few of your questions now.