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Updated: House Agriculture Committee plans hearing on ‘over-regulation’ of biotech

At the beginning of 2011 the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture began the congressional session by questioning agriculture officials on the government’s role in regulation of biotechnology. The Committee seems poised now to take their questions a step further, and have scheduled a Thursday hearing to “review the causes and consequences of government over-regulation of agriculture biotechnology.”

(Editor’s Note: At 5 p.m. on Aug. 2, the Committee announced that this hearing has been postponed. No additional information was provided.)

Although the latest in a series of hearings devoted to biotech, the Rural Development, Research, Biotechnology and Foreign Agriculture Subcommittee is offering few clues as to the exact content that will be heard by not yet releasing a list of speakers or individuals who will provide testimony. Based on earlier explorations by the same subcommittee and statements made by committee leadership, however, it isn’t too difficult to speculate.

Image has not been found. URL: http://media.iowaindependent.com/frank-lucas_125.jpgFrank Lucas

During the January hearing, which was intended to be a review of U.S. Department of Agriculture regulatory policies for biotech but mostly concentrated on genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa by Monsanto Co., Ag Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) uged the USDA to use only existing scientific evidence in making determinations on genetically modified crops.

“As we seek to find solutions to the challenges of identity preservation, it is important that we not pursue strategies that inhibit grower choice or pit producer against producer,” Lucas said.

And while some Congressional hearings have been comprised of bitter partisan disputes on the issues, the biotech hearings jointed hosted by Lucas and Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) have been amicable.

“The current process [of deregulating GE crops] takes the decisions out of the hands of the agriculture community and moves them into the courtroom, litigated by lawyers and decided by judges who have no connection to agriculture. I look forward to working with Secretary [Tom] Vilsack and Chairman Lucas to ensure that we continue product innovation and agricultural growth,” Peterson said.

Vilsack, who provided testimony before the committee and isn’t necessarily known as being in opposition to biotech, said the issues surrounding American agriculture are complex.

“Some have questioned the need for this discussion and have suggested USDA is moving away from a science-based and rules-based decision process,” Vilsack said. “I want to reassure everyone that USDA will continue to adhere to a scientific, risk-based decision making process, and that our decisions will continue to be driven by science.”

The Plant Protection Act, he said, gives the Secretary of Agriculture, and through delegated authority the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the ability to prohibit or restrict the importation, exportation and the interstate movement of plants, plant products, certain biological control organisms, noxious weeds and plant pests.

But such regulatory authority in general seems to be an over-step of government to Lucas and other GOP committee members, who have railed time and time again, that federal regulation is having a negative impact on production agriculture and rural economies — even as economic officials argue the agricultural industry has fared best through the economic downturn.

“From the dairies in Vermont, to the wheat fields near the Chesapeake Bay, to the corn farms in the Midwest, American agriculture is under a constant barrage of irrational and unworkable regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency, which are burdensome, overreaching, and that negatively affect jobs and rural economies,” Lucas said in February as the Committee held hearings on EPA regulations.

U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford (R-Ark.) said in July that “no one knows better than farmers and ranchers that job creation has become increasingly difficult due to burdensome regulations.”

U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson (R-Ill.) said in June that a hearing to review the benefits of further developing and using biotech products showed “that a thorough review of obstacles — both regulatory and legal — will be necessary to fully realize the benefits of biotech, and all regulations must be science-based, predictable and defensible.”

And that statement brings us to Thursday’s hearing, which will be led by Johnson and U.S. Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.).

Following the June hearing Costa noted, “Agriculture biotechnology is and will continue to be vitally important as American farmers work to feed a growing population around the globe. While large commodity crops like corn and soybeans have already realized the benefits of this science, the next generation of agriculture biotechnology holds immense promise for specialty crops, like the fruits and vegetables we grow in California’s Central Valley.”

It isn’t hard to understand how any lawmaker attending the hearing would have walked away with an incredibly favorable view of the promise of biotechnology because the hearing completely lived up to its name and only offered perspectives from three individuals, all of whom highly favored biotech.

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