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Senators, organic industry, resist new biotech corn

(Friday, Feb. 28, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Environment News Service, 02/27/03: As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approves a new genetically engineered corn for sale, members of Congress and the organic farm industry are working to keep that corn from ending up as feed for animals raised on organic farms.

On Tuesday, the EPA approved the use of a corn variety created by Monsanto that produces its own insecticide to control corn rootworm, a widespread and destructive insect. The EPA said the new product, YieldGard Rootworm corn, will provide corn growers with a safe, non-chemical pest control alternative that can reduce reliance on traditional insecticides.

"EPA has put this new product through a rigorous, science based review process, including extensive public comment and independent scientific peer review, to ensure that it is safe for human health and the environment," said Stephen Johnson, the EPA's assistant administrator for prevention, pesticides, and toxic substances. "This is another milestone in the continued growth of plant biotechnology," said Dr. Robert Fraley, chief technology officer for Monsanto. "The fact that this technology continues to grow is a testament to the benefits of plant biotechnology and to the promise of products like YieldGard Rootworm corn."

"This new variety of corn pest control holds great promise for reducing reliance on conventional insecticides now used on millions of acres of corn in the U.S.," Johnson said.

But some critics are concerned about where the new corn may end up in the food supply. They fear it might be fed to livestock whose meat, milk or butter is then labeled organic on market shelves.

Under the Omnibus Appropriations Bill that Congress passed for fiscal year 2003 earlier this month, a rider was included in the Omnibus Appropriations Bill allowing producers to label their meat and dairy products organic even though they do not meet the strict criteria set forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), including the requirement that the animals be fed organically grown feed.

"The rider was included in the bill to benefit one Georgia producer," says Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, and "it is written broadly enough that it essentially creates a loophole for any livestock producer in the country to get around the organic feed requirement," the senator said.

On Wednesday Senators Leahy and Olympia Snowe, a Republican from Maine, led a group of 27 senators in introducing the Organic Restoration Act, a bill that would repeal the rider.

"With the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, we set out to create strong and credible standards so that consumers know that when they buy something 'organic,' they know it is organic," said Leahy, the author of the 1990 law, who calls himself the "father" of the organic standards and label program.

"This rider would undo what it took more than a decade to achieve. It would undermine consumer confidence in the new labeling program and in this thriving new American industry, and it would devastate U.S. exports of organic products," Leahy said.

"We do not let meat packing plants ignore food safety standards or automakers ignore passenger safety standards for the sake of corporate convenience. We should not weaken the organic standards because one producer wants to cut corners that his competitors are not cutting," said Leahy, who is working to build a bipartisan coalition to repeal the rider. "We will not let 10 lines in a 3,000-page appropriations bill undermine 12 years of hard work and the commitment of thousands of organic producers."

Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman on Tuesday took a position on the controversial rider which allows organic livestock to be fed non-organic feed when organic feed is more than twice the price of conventional feed.

Veneman said, "I am concerned that the language inserted in the Omnibus Appropriations Act could weaken the National Organic Program. It is important to maintain a strong organic program that ensures the integrity of the organic label placed on organic consumer products. The best way to do that is to maintain the organic standards as USDA implemented them in October 2002."

The Agriculture Department did not take a position when the language was added to the omnibus spending bill.

The new corn, developed by Monsanto and referred to as "MON 863," produces its own insecticide within the plant derived from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a naturally occurring soil bacterium. The Bt protein, called Cry3Bb1, controls corn rootworm, the pest responsible for the single largest use of conventional insecticides in the United States.

At about 80 million planted acres, corn is the largest crop grown in the country. The EPA said use of the new pest control tool is expected to result in major reductions in the use of numerous conventional insecticides.

Kevin Penny, a corn grower from Burlington, Colorado, said, "In the past, we've had to spray up to three insecticides in a single growing season to control this pest. So, we are very excited about having the type of technology that can have this rootworm resistance built within the plant itself."

In order to reduce the possibility of corn rootworm developing resistance to Bt, the EPA is requiring Monsanto to ensure that 20 percent of the planted acreage of this product be set aside where non-Bt corn will be grown to serve as a "refuge." These refuge areas will support populations of corn rootworm not exposed to the Bt bacterium.

The insect populations in the refuges are expected to help prevent resistance development when they crossbreed with insects in the Bt fields. This resistance management strategy was developed as a condition of the registration, and the EPA will require routine monitoring and documentation that these measures are followed.

The EPA is also requiring Monsanto to conduct additional research on corn rootworm to ensure that optimal long term resistance management practices are maintained.

The Organic Trade Association Wednesday urged Congress to pass the repeal of the controversial rider. It is a serious issue because organic livestock provides meat, milk, eggs, cheese, wool, and more, forming the basis of hundreds of products, the association said in a statement.

Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the association which represents the organic industry throughout North America said the rider is upsetting to the industry because many producers have already made the commitment to organic production and are following the rules.

"The Organic Trade Association and organic producers throughout the country are urging that this section be repealed because it undermines their hard work to adhere to the requirements of the National Organic Program," said DiMatteo. "Prompting this has been one company's reluctance to pay the price for organic feed. Our information shows that there is enough organic feed available to feed the organic livestock now being raised."

George Siemon, founding farmer and CEO of Organic Valley Family of Farms and Livestock Committee chair of the National Organic Standards Board, called on Congress to pass the Leahy-Snowe "Organic Restoration Act."

"This rider is a slap in the face to organic farmers," said Siemon, who represents the more than 500 organic farmers in the Organic Valley cooperative, the largest in the world. "It threatens the economic viability of organic farmers, undermines the foundations of organic agriculture, and tears down public trust in the USDA organic seal."

For more information on EPA's regulation of genetically engineered crop pesticides, visit: http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/biopesticides

See story at http://ens-news.com/ens/feb2003/2003-02-27-01.asp