Are companies with a vested interest in the outcome of environmental assessment studies qualified to conduct those studies themselves? A pilot project announced by an agency at the United States Department of Agriculture is preparing to give for-profit corporations the ability to do just that.

Earlier this month, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) published a notice in the Federal Register announcing a two-year pilot project that would farm out the responsibility for studying environmental assessments of proposed biotech crops, such as Monsanto’s Round-Up Ready alfalfa, to those companies themselves, or USDA-approved third parties. Right now, those studies are conducted by APHIS.

The project, the department hopes, will “test new approaches to developing environmental analyses and documents” currently required under the National Environmental Policy Act, and reduce the length of time — and costs — associated with those reviews. “The pilot project will focus only on NEPA analyses and documents associated with petitions for non-regulated status for [genetically engineered] organisms.”

In order for genetically modified plants to gain approval from the USDA, petitioners — such as biotech companies Monsanto or DuPont, for example — must submit specific information to help APHIS determine whether the biotechnology in question is eligible for deregulation. The process, critics say, is slow and a large number of crops are tied up in the queue awaiting decisions by the agency.

It’s possible that this change can help streamline the process, said Karen Batra, communications director at the Washington, D.C.-based Biotechnology Industry Organization. Much of the problem lies with staff shortages and availability of resources at APHIS, she said.

Petitioners would have one of two options if they choose not to have APHIS conduct the research. The first option would be to let the petitioners actually conduct the research themselves, submitting it to the agency for final approval. The second option would be to farm the research out to an APHIS-approved third party, private firms that would conduct the research on behalf of the petitioner.

“It’s important to point out, this program will be voluntary,” Batra said. Such an arrangement would still make it possible for smaller companies without the resources to conduct such research on their own to leave the studies to the USDA.

“We would point out that the proposed pilot program doesn’t change the fact that APHIS retains accountability for the rigor of the review,” noted Lisa Dry, communications manager for biotech and regulatory affairs at Iowa’s Pioneer Hi-Bred, a DuPont company, “and the responsibility to thoroughly research and analyze all the data in the [environmental impact statement] or [environmental assessment] regardless of who prepares it.  We also believe that public participation in the review process is important — all existing opportunities for  public comment and review of EISs and EAs remain unchanged.”

But not everyone is as optimistic. Bill Freese, science policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety, said from his office in Pennsylvania the project will only continue APHIS’s longstanding role as a rubberstamp for biotechnology companies.

“The underlying issue is — I don’t say this lightly — APHIS doesn’t really have the will to regulate genetically engineered crops,” said Freese. “They’re too tied to the industry; a lot of their people come from the biotech industry.”

Freese worries, too, that third-party research firms may find themselves shut out if they produce too many reports that “reflect adversely on the crop.”

A better alternative would be to follow the Environmental Protection Agency’s model, he said. When the EPA finds itself dealing with issues it doesn’t have experience with, the agency calls together scientific advisory panels to investigate. There’s nothing similar at APHIS.

“Our basic position is that we need to have USDA personnel performing these assessments,” he said.