RTw 25.03.99 03:08
Copyright 1999 Reuters Ltd. All rights reserved.
By Julie Vorman
WASHINGTON, March 24 (Reuters) - Farm state lawmakers from both parties on
Wednesday attacked the
Environmental Protection Agency's plan to start regulating genetically
modified plant pesticides, saying the rules could
stifle the biotechnology industry.
Grower groups and 11 scientific organisations contend the EPA has no
business making rules for bioengineered crops
with built-in resistance to certain pests because the plants are no
different than those bred by conventional methods.
The issue also raises questions about how well the EPA, U.S. Agriculture
Department and Food and Drug Administration
have divvied up responsibility over parts of the food chain. While the EPA
regulates clean air, water and pesticides, the
USDA reviews bioengineered plants for safety and the FDA monitors food
additives and safety.
During the past three years, genetically modified crops have expanded
rapidly and now dominate U.S. plantings. More
than half of all U.S. soybeans and cotton grown in 1999 will be genetically
engineered for resistance to certain herbicides.
"We must be sure that regulatory excess does not suffocate this
(biotechnology) industry," said Representative Larry
Combest, a Texas Republican who heads the House Agriculture committee.
Two of the Agriculture panel's subcommittees held a rare joint hearing of
44 House lawmakers to question EPA officials.
Combest asked the EPA to reopen its formal rulemaking on plant pesticides,
and take a closer look at the costs to the
Among other things, the EPA's term of "plant pesticide" has been criticised
by some groups as a deliberate attempt to
bring the issue under the agency's jurisdiction, and likely to arouse
public suspicion. A group of industry officials and
scientists earlier this month said they preferred "plant-expressed
Jim Aidala, associate assistant administrator of EPA, said the agency had
no option except to issue regulations based on
its reading of a 1947 law.
"Without an exemption or federal registration, you would be in violation of
the law," Aidala told the panel. "We see this as
a 'win-win' for both the environment and the growers."
The EPA said the proposed rules -- which it hopes to finalise later this
year -- are necessary to give final and clear rules to
plant developers. Aidala emphasised that most of the widely used plant
pesticides would be swiftly and permanently
exempted from regulation.
The real purpose of the regulations, he said, is to make sure that a
genetic characteristic inserted into a plant to fight pests
or weeds is safe for its intended use.
For example, one U.S. variety of potato is already genetically engineered
to fight a costly disease that affects the plant's
leaves. But if that gene, which can cause birth defects, were transferred
to a leafy food such as spinach, it could have
serious health effects, Aidala said.
Democrats on the panel either kept silent or expressed worry about the
course the EPA was headed on.
"Farmers want to approach this in a reasonable way," said Representative
Eva Clayton, the ranking Democrat on the
panel. She urged the agency to take another look at whether the regulations
were needed, and if so, how slowly they
should be phased in.
Representative George Brown, a California Democrat and longtime champion of
the EPA, said he was concerned that the
agency appeared to be trying to expand its turf by narrowly interpreting a
half-century-old law that covers pesticides.
"I'm concerned that what we have here may be a semantic issue," Brown said.
Eleven science groups, including the American Society of Agronomy and the
Institute of Food Technologists, have
opposed the EPA plan to regulate plant pesticides.
Aidala also said the EPA was working with the USDA to develop an expedited
process for exempting plant pesticides
shown to pose a low probability of risk. Bioengineered plant pesticides
also have "tremendous potential" for replacing
more toxic, traditional pesticides, Aidala said.
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