A House hearing on herbicide-resistant weeds shed light and generated heat but, unfortunately, provided little in the way of concrete solutions to the burgeoning problem in U.S. row crop fields.

Provocatively titled “Are ‘superweeds’ an outgrowth of USDA biotech policy?” the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform, Domestic Policy Subcommittee hearing Sept. 30 was chaired by Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich.

Who has authority?

Kucinich, in an attempt to determine what oversight and powers the USDA has — or believes itself to have — with regard to resistant weeds and herbicide-tolerant crops, tangled early on with Ann Wright, USDA deputy undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs.

Kucinich brought up Section 412 of the Plant Protection Act. Wright, obviously uncomfortable in the spotlight, displeased the legislator with several evasive responses to his questions.

Section 412 “covers your authority to prevent the spread of ‘noxious weeds,’” said Kucinich to Wright, while pushing the view that USDA has more oversight power than it is currently exercising. “Section 412 gives the secretary (of agriculture) authority to prohibit, or restrict, the movement of any plant if the secretary determines the prohibition or restriction is necessary to prevent the dissemination of a noxious within the United States.

“Noxious weeds are defined by the statute … as ‘any plant or plant product that can directly, or indirectly, injure or cause damage to crops…’

To see Section 412, visit 412

Section 412, insisted Kucinich, provides the USDA broad authority to restrict the use of Roundup resistant crops “if sound science determines that those restrictions are necessary to prevent the spread of Roundup-resistant, noxious weeds.”

Kucinich: “How can you come to Congress and insist that, effectively, Section 412 doesn’t even exist?”

Wright tried to deflect the question. “This USDA is very committed to looking at all our programs and policies and ensuring they’re for all forms of agriculture.”

Kucinich interrupted, “I know this is your first time before a committee. And I do appreciate you being here. I asked you a question and I’d like an answer. (You) were not responsive.”

The USDA, said Wright, interprets “our existing authorities as those focused on plant/pest risk. Back in March 2009, we issued a set of updates to our rules and regulations that expanded our authorities into the Noxious Weed Act (see Act).

“We’re now looking at 66,000 comments on those rule updates. This is a new administration, and we’ll be looking at the full range of comments that came in and look very carefully at where our authorities are.”

Kucinich pounced: “Are you familiar with Section 412 of the act?”

Wright admitted she wasn’t.

“You’re really not?” said Kucinich, who ordered committee staff to provide Wright with a copy of the statute. “If the regulatory agency isn’t fully familiar with the extent of its authority that may (explain) one of the difficulties we’re having here.”

By now, he continued, the USDA “understands the problem of ‘superweeds’ is a crisis. What I don’t understand — and it defies comprehension — is that the department has the legal ability to help farmers deal with the crisis and prevent it from worsening and … hasn’t made a decision to use that authority.”