Farmers hoping to be able to use new herbicide-tolerant crops will have to wait as the U.S. Department of Agriculture will require full environmental impact statements before the crops can become commercially available.
The USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) said May 10 it would require the full environmental impact statements (EIS) for the crops rather than the more common "environmental assessments" - which are shorter reviews.
Industry sources said this could delay introduction of the new herbicide-tolerant crops from two-four years.
Dow has developed corn and two soybean varieties that can tolerate 2,4-D (dichlorophenoxyacetic acid) and Monsanto has developed dicamba-tolerant soybeans and cotton.
Dow had hoped to sell its product to farmers as early as this year or next and now it may be at least until 2015 before farmers can get their hands on this "Enlist" trait. The company had submitted its data on the new crop to USDA four years ago.
Several farm groups said it's important that the new herbicide-resistant crops be introduced because in many regions of the country weeds have become resistant to the commonly used herbicide glyphosate (Roundup) and they said they need new crops to combat this resistance.
Roundup-resistant weeds are a problem in 25 states and crop experts said the problem is getting worse each year.
Dow and Monsanto's new crops have been genetically engineered to resist older herbicides 2,4-D, which has been in use since the 1940s and dicamba, which came on the market in the late 1960s.
The Monsanto and Dow crops will be evaluated in separate environmental impact statements.
The herbicide 2,4-D is the most widely used weed killer in the world and the third most used in the United States - behind atrazine and glyphosate. The crops covered by the decision are the first to be genetically engineered with resistance to these herbicides.
Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, called the USDA's decision to prepare full environmental impact statements for the biotech corn, soybean and cotton crops "troubling."
"Most disturbing," he said, "is that USDA has not provided scientific justification for why full environmental impact statements are needed."
Stallman said the prompt availability of new technologies, including crop varieties that are resistant to 2,4-D and dicamba herbicides, "will allow America's crop farmers to continue their legacy of continuous improvement - growing more food using fewer resources than ever before."
Soybean growers were especially disappointed with the decision. Danny Murphy, a soybean grower from Canton, MS, who is president of the American Soybean Association (ASA) said his group was "extremely disappointed" with the USDA's decision "that will only serve to place another barrier between soybean farmers and the tools and technologies they need to sustainably grow more food, fiber and fuel for our nation."
Murphy said there is no reason for APHIS to conduct an additional EIS on top of the already-comprehensive environmental assessment that has been completed for these products.
"Even in APHIS's own press release, the agency cites the sustained, safe use of 2,4-D since the 1940s and dicamba since 1967," he added.
Farmers need new technologies like crops that have herbicide-tolerant traits to manage weeds and weed resistance, Murphy said, adding that USDA's decision will delay the availability of these new technologies.
Requiring the full EIS "unjustifiably" delays the availability of these new products to farmers, Murphy said, while also "increasing regulatory costs, chilling product innovation and reducing the efficiency and productivity of U.S. agriculture.
USDA's decision also greatly undermines its previous commitments to eliminate delays in its regulatory reviews, he added.
"My fellow farmers and I are in a race, as is all of American agriculture. We're in a race to produce enough food and products to satisfy the demands of a global population projected to hit 9 billion people within the next 40 years.
"Tools like 2,4-D and dicamba-tolerant traits are critical to our mission as farmers, and for USDA to require an EIS without any scientific justification is troubling," Murphy said.
The Center for Food Safety, which went to court and forced the USDA to do environment impact statements for "Roundup Ready" sugar beets and alfalfa, said approval of these new crops would cause a "dramatic increase" in the use of herbicides and linked that to human health problems.
Another concern is that the herbicides will drift and could potentially harm threatened and endangered plant species, the center said.
"While we welcome this decision, it remains to be seen whether the agency will undertake the required hard-look analysis of the environmental and economic impacts of these crops," said Bill Freese, science policy analyst for CFS, in a statement.
The Save Our Crops Coalition, which includes growers and processors of tomatoes, grapes and other specialty fruits and vegetables, said dicamba-tolerant crops pose an "unprecedented threat" to their industry.
Dicamba, the coalition said in a statement, is "one of America's most dangerous herbicides for non-target plant damage."
The USDA said it had gotten 8,200 comments on the Dow products, including petitions signed by more than 400,000 people.
For the Monsanto products, which were developed in conjunction with BASF, the agency said it had received 500 individual comments and 31,000 form letters regarding the company's two petitions for deregulation.
Comments were similar, APHIS's statement said, ranging from the importance of making new herbicide-resistant crops available to producers to focusing on the potential for an increase in the volume of use in these two herbicides to the chemicals' movement onto non-target crops in surrounding areas.
Some of the people who submitted comments were concerned about the potential for weeds to develop resistance to these herbicides as they have to glyphosate.
In its statement announcing the decision, APHIS said it would need to do the EIS analyses because deregulation of the new crops "may significantly affect the quality of the human environment."