It was a battle over agricultural biotechnology that didn’t happen — at least not in the House Agriculture Committee’s July 11 markup of its version of the proposed new Farm Bill. After a long day of discussing, and then voting on, more than 100 proposed amendments, the wearied-looking legislators finished the markup without addressing some controversial biotech riders tucked into Title X: Horticulture. But that doesn’t mean heated debate over these riders won’t flare up as the Farm Bill makes its hopeful way toward approval in September. Critics of agricultural biotechnology say that genetically engineered crops can be harmful to human health and to the environment. They point to warnings from an array of scientists that the artificial insertion of genetic material into plants could cause significant problems such as an increase in the levels of known toxicants in food, the introduction of new toxicants or new allergies, and the reduction of the nutritional value of food. On the other side of the health divide, the American Medical Association’s House of Delegates recently reaffirmed its support of biotechnology in the production of safe, nutritious food. AMA also pointed to the continuing validity of federal regulation, saying that food produced through biotechnology poses no more risk than food produced in conventional ways. In an effort to boost the public’s understanding of this new way of producing food, the International Food Information Council Foundation has released five videos featuring leading physicians in the fields of pediatrics, food allery and obstetrics who answer frequently asked questions about food biotechnology. In 1992, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration established a policy declaring that there is no substantial or material difference between genetically engineered foods and foods that haven’t been genetically engineered. Even so, many consumers are wary, if not downright opposed, to this new technology. In a July 12 press release, the Center for Food Safety vowed to continue its strong opposition to the bill’s attachments, describing them as “irresponsible and unnecessary changes to USDA regulations” that would severely weaken the agency’s oversight of genetically engineered crops, and thus “fundamentally erode science-based review.” Remaining optimistic, the Center expects the riders to be eliminated on the House floor when the full House considers the draft version of the Farm Bill, or when the House and Senate bills go to conference. On the other side of the biotech fence, Karen Batra, spokesperson for Biotechnology Industry Organization, BIO, told Food Safety News that the organization doesn’t want to speculate on how Congress will vote on a final package, “but we are pleased with the bipartisan support shown in the committee for clarifying the US regulatory system for ag biotech.” The fact that the provisions remain in the proposed bill is good news, she said, because they offer common-sense modifications that would benefit an approval system that has become “duplicative, unpredictable and costly.” Summary of the Riders According to the summary of the proposed bill, the biotechnology provisions in Title 10 reiterate that the USDA is authorized to regulate the introduction and cultivation of products of biotechnology if the products pose a plant pest risk. When a petition for deregulation of a biotech variety is received, a comprehensive plant pest risk assessment is conducted. Once it is determined that the product poses no plant pest risk, the authority to regulate the product under the Plant Protection Act ceases and a final decision is made to deregulate the product. Recent petitions for deregulation have taken several years, though the actual review takes only weeks, and USDA regulation provides for a maximum limit of 180 days. The current framework of the Plant Protection Act, which is intended to ensure the safety of biotechnology crop reviews, has been impeded by numerous procedural lawsuits. Many of these lawsuits have been proven to include frivolous claims and have been based on extraneous statutes that conflict with USDA’s statutory mandate to regulate based on plant pest risk. These challenges have strained the limited resources of the USDA, imposed millions of dollars in unnecessary costs on taxpayers and hundreds of millions of dollars in lost opportunity costs on our national economy, and endangered the United States’ leadership role in this new and beneficial field of science. Agricultural biotechnology is an evolutionary technology with revolutionary potential to feed an ever-increasing world population, while enhancing environmental stewardship. In conclusion, says the summary, the provisions “will ensure that the transparent, comprehensive and scientifically-based review of these products occurs in a timeframe that facilitates continued innovation and adaptation of new tools to meet the challenges of food security.” Different Sides of the Fence But that’s not the way opponents of the proposed biotech riders see it. In a July 10 letter to leaders of the House Agriculture Committee, the Center for Food Safety teamed up with 39 other organizations and businesses to warn that the proposed provisions would create serious risks to farmers, the environment and public health by forcing the rushed commercialization of GE crops and eliminating meaningful review of their impacts. The letter also warns that the provisions could possibly allow certain levels of “transgenic pollution.” “Fundamentally, Congress should not attempt to alter the USDA’s regulatory framework for GE crops in such a one-sided and non-transparent manner,” says the letter. “The new deadlines and diminished review process will make a mockery of USDA’s GE crop reviews, transforming it into a facade of ‘rubber stamp’ approval, at the urging of the chemical industry. The only gain from these measures will be to the profits of the pesticide industry to the detriment of conventional and organic farmers and businesses, as well as the environment.” In an interview with Food Safety News after the House Agriculture Committee had completed its markup of the proposed draft of the Farm Bill, Colin O’Neil, regulatory policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety, said the Center remains strongly opposed to what he calls “the irresponsible riders” because they would perilously weaken the USDA’s oversight of genetically engineered crops and fundamentally erode their science-based review. “This is pesticide-promoting politics at its worst,” he said, referring to biotech crops that have been engineered to survive applications of pesticides designed to kill pests and weeds, thereby allowing pesticides to be applied to them. He also warned that that “these hidden biotech riders would eliminate the very safeguards that protect American farmers and our food supply.” In a July 11 press release after the markup, the Center warned that the riders could have these potential outcomes: – Completely eliminate the critical roles of our most important environmental laws; – Unreasonably pressure USDA with impossible deadlines for analysis and decision, while withholding funds to conduct environmental reviews; – Create multiple backdoor GE crop approval mechanisms that would allow the premature commercialization of untested biotech traits to enter our food system; – Limit the regulatory authority of other agencies, such as EPA; and – Force the USDA to adopt a controversial policy of allowable levels of GE contamination in crops and foods.  (The provision’s language requests the USDA to work with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency to submit a report on measures taken, and proposed to be taken, to develop and implement a cohesive national policy for the low-level presence of agronomic biotechnology material in crops, including grain and other commodity crops, for food, feed and processing.) The National Grain and Feed Association, whose members include Archer Daniels Midland Company and Cargill, Inc., have also expressed concern about the riders, pointing to the possibility of unintended consequences in domestic and export markets. Many export markets prohibit even minute traces of genetically modified organisms and will refuse shipments of any food that contains them. And on the organic front, no genetically modified organisms are allowed in foods bearing USDA’s organic label. “Americans want our federal agencies to do a thorough job of evaluating GE crops and GE foods before they are introduced into the marketplace, our stores and our homes,” said Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Stonyfield, which produces organic yogurts, in a July 10 PR Newswire press release. “Rushing the approval of GE crops before they can be fully evaluated endangers our families.” Taking a markedly different stance on this issue, BIO, along with seven agricultural groups, among them the American Farm Bureau Federation, the Agricultural Retailers Association, and the National Corn Growers Association, sent a July 6 letter to House Agriculture Committee leaders praising the proposed provisions. “With more than 25 years of regulatory experience and not a single documented incident of actual harm to human health or the environment, it is an opportune time to reduce regulatory burdens, where appropriate, redirect agency resources, and clarify regulatory roles and responsibilities,” says the letter. Looking to the future, the letter says that the regulatory improvements for agricultural biotechnology will  grow a “modern 21st Century bioeconomy.” And it points to the Obama Administration’s National Bioeconomy Blueprint, which suggests that to further grow the nation’s bioeconomy, federal agencies must “develop and reform regulations to reduce barriers, increase the speed and predictability of regulatory processes, and reduce costs while protecting human and environmental health.” BIO’s Batra told Food Safety News that it’s important to know that the proposed riders would in no way reduce the regulation of biotech crops. “It clarifies the roles of the three government agencies — USDA, the Food and Drug Administration, EPA — under the Coordinated Framework so that they focus on the necessary functions and expertise within their authority without duplicating,” she said. But O’Neil, policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety, said that the Center is determined to get the riders out of the proposed Farm Bill. “This type of attack on our nation’s farmers and food supply should not stand, and we call on Congress to make sure that it does not.”