The USDA Friday announced its intent to prepare separate environmental impact statements for soybean, corn and cotton varieties resistant to dicamba and 2,4-D.
Some varieties affected are part of Dow AgroSciences' Enlist Weed Control System and Monsanto's Roundup Ready 2 Xtend for soybeans and Bollgard II XtendFlex for cotton.
Environmental impact statements are required by the National Environmental Policy Act to evaluate the potential impacts of forthcoming technologies on the quality of the human environment – if the requesting agency believes there is potential for impact.
Through analysis of information submitted by the plants' developers, as well as public comments, APHIS determined the statements are necessary, USDA said.
The varieties in question are the first genetically engineered plants to be resistant to 2,4-D and dicamba. Both are approved herbicides that have been used since the 1960s for weed control.
In August, 2012, several industry groups prepared a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack regarding petitions to deregulate biotech products, such as herbicide-resistant GM crops.
The groups – including the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Corn Growers Association and the American Soybean Association – urged the Secretary to "maintain a commitment" to regulatory process and reject petitions submitted to APHIS that are "clearly intended to unnecessarily delay science-based decisions on new biotechnology derived products by requiring an environmental impact statement to consider the cumulative impacts of the deregulation of auxin herbicide tolerant crops."
The groups said requiring an environmental assessment, which is separate from an EIS, is supported. But completing a full EIS on every new trait is "fundamentally inconsistent with safety and risk-based principles."
Further, the groups addey wrote that requiring an EIS after the EA finds no significant impact increases regulatory costs and damages the reputation of regulatory framework -- ultimately reducing the efficiency of U.S. agriculture.
Similarly, Dow noted in a press statement Friday that the latest APHIS move to require an EIS on the Enlist system will further facilitate the spread of glyphosate-resistant and hard-to-control weeds. The delay caused by the EIS will cause these "adverse trends" to continue, the company explained.
Monsanto also pledged in a statement to cooperate with the USDA APHIS to complete the statements "as soon as possible," calling Friday's announcement "unexpected."
However, opponents of the technologies fear that they will lead to increased use of the two herbicides. The Save Our Crops Coalition, originator of a petition for an EIS on dicamba-tolerant crops, said there is also concern about dicamba drift onto non-target crops.
In a statement regarding USDA's decision, SOCC Chairman Steve Smith said, "We appreciate that USDA has acknowledged the need to gather more information about the environmental impacts of dicamba tolerant crops before reaching a decision regarding their widespread use."
Previously, Monsanto had planned a 2014 roll-out of the product, which they initially unveiled at the 2012 Commodity Classic.
APHIS has already completed draft environmental assessments and plant pest risk assessments for two out of three of the 2,4D-resistant products and all of the dicamba-resistant products. APHIS said it had already received thousands of public comments and letters regarding the two petitions.