The legality of USDA’s proposed third option was also a topic for the hearing’s second panel, which included Chuck Conner, former USDA under- and acting-secretary and current president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives.

Iowa Rep. Leonard Boswell asked Conner, who pushed for the GM alfalfa’s deregulation, if USDA has “the authority to implement partial deregulation?”

“I’m not a lawyer,” responded Conner. “Having served as one who oversaw the regulatory process, it’s my view that once they’ve completed (the full assessment) of the safety of these products – which they have on Roundup Ready alfalfa – I don’t think they have the regulatory authority to do anything other than simply deregulate the product. That’s the so-called ‘option two’ the USDA has presented.”

Conner said he is unsure how to “feed this hungry world” without GM crops. “At the same time … the interest in organic food has exploded. It’s a great opportunity for jobs and giving people what they want. I kind of maintain the idea, with this grand need we have, that there’s room for both.”

Boswell, keen to strike a conciliatory tone, asked, “Do you share my hope and belief that they can work this out and co-exist?”

“I do,” said Conner. “I share it wholeheartedly. Many of the farmer-owned co-ops I represent are engaged in conventional as well as organic production. They’ve seen tremendous growth in both.”

Boswell worried about “developing sides” on deregulation. “I don’t think there needs to be sides. Maybe we need to figure out how to facilitate communications. It seems everyone on the committee feels we (need) the science. At the same time, in this exchange I’ve had with Mr. Conner, there’s a desire, need and use for the organic (crops).”

If USDA’s “third option” is adopted, Texas Rep. Mike Conaway sees a “monster bureaucracy coming together to try and set standards and buffer zones … for every single product. Aren’t those decisions better left to the states and local municipalities and entities rather than an effort by USDA across the country?”

Conner was in the corner of those advocating private party interests. “There is precedent with private party interests looking after these issues of co-existing – quite successfully. In the case of alfalfa, in particular, some of the members I represent are quite anxious to fill a market for organic alfalfa seed – a market that exists in a big way and they believe through private contractual arrangements they can fulfill.”

Conner dissected Vilsack’s early testimony. “The rub here is – and I go back to Vilsack’s statement: ‘I look forward to our discussion here and hope you share my belief that farmers/ranchers/growers are in the best position to decide what is best for their operations.’ I concur with that statement. There is not a role for the federal government to be stepping in the middle of private contractual arrangements relative to co-existence. I believe they’ll take care of themselves.”

Conaway: “(Vilsack) said all the right things, was political about everything and hugged all sides. But, at the end of the day, if he pulls the trigger on ‘option three’ that last statement (you read) is inaccurate.”

Conner didn’t hesitate: “It’s inaccurate. That’s correct.”

dbennett@farmpress.com