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Will focus of new USDA biotech committee be any better than the last one?

(Feb 10, 2002 CropChoice news) People interested in serving on the new U.S. Department of Agriculture biotech committee the Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture should turn in their applications by February 28. More information on this is available at the end of this story.

This new body will replace the Advisory Committee on Agricultural Biotechnology, which former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman created in the face of heavy pressure from skeptics of genetically modified crops.

But the recently terminated committee lacked focus, says Mark Lipson, who served on it and directs the policy program at the Organic Farming Research Foundation (http://www.ofrf.org). Lipson hopes that the new committee, whose 15- to 20-person membership will make it about half the size of its predecessor, will do more to address effectively doubts about transgenic crops.

That could be a tall order, though, says Lipson, noting that, overall, the USDA "basically has blinders on and wont do anything to address the consumer, market, environmental and agronomic issues involved with genetically modified organisms."

Although Glickman created the committee with a notion that it would help reach a "meeting of the minds" on the contentious issues, Lipson says that the body served as more of a "steam valve where the usual arguments got spun out and repeated." The USDA staffers facilitated the point-counterpoint arguments instead of providing leadership that could lead to resolution.

There was at least one exception, Lipson recalls, in which the committee reached consensus. That was the issue of re-invigorating public plant breeding programs. By the latter part of the 20th century, the private sector was breeding more new seed varieties than the Agricultural Research Service and land grant colleges, which traditionally had borne responsibility for developing varieties that would help farmers growing various types of crops in different climates and geographies. The private companies, of course, were interested in profit, whereas the charge of public programs was to develop crops that would benefit farmers, agriculture and society.

The Advisory Committee on Agricultural Biotechnology released its consensus paper on the issue after its final meeting, which ran from August 1-2, 2001. Among other recommendations, the paper urged that the USDA "set a goal to at least double the U.S. capacity in public plant breeding over the next 5 years. The Committee strongly believes that substantial increases in capacity will be critical if USDA is to meet the complex needs of American farmers and help fulfill the U.S. commitment to world food security." The committee papers and meeting transcripts are available at http://www.usda.gov/agencies/biotech/acab. Whether anything comes of the paper and its recommendations remains to be seen.

Lipson urges those in the sustainable agriculture movement to apply for the committee. "Im not going to apply for the committee because I have other commitments," he says. "But its very important that other people in the organic community apply."

For more information on the new committee, go to http://www.usda.gov/agencies/biotech/index.html.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Questions should be addressed to Michael Schechtman, Designated Federal Official, telephone (202) 720- 3817; fax (202) 690-4265; email mschechtman@ars.usda.gov. To obtain form AD-755 ONLY please contact Vanessa Simon, Office of Pest Management Policy, telephone (202) 690-8647, fax (202) 690-4265; email vsimon@ars.usda.gov.