Key Ag Biotech Unit Cut In Budget Appropriations

BIO To Ask For Restored Funding

Key Ag Biotech Unit Cut In Budget Appropriations

By Lisa Seachrist

Washington Editor

WASHINGTON - In the scramble to pass an omnibus budget bill prior to hitting the campaign trail, members of Congress took a 9 percent bite out of the budget for a key regulatory unit that oversees all field trials for genetically engineered crops.

The biotechnology regulatory unit of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) will have $739,000 less in fiscal year 1999 to manage the burgeoning agricultural biotech industry than was at its disposal in fiscal year 1998. The budget shortfall could ultimately affect how these crops are accepted in international markets.

"Given the increasing challenges this unit faces, we expected to see more money allocated to its operations this year," said Val Giddings, vice president of food and agriculture for the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). "We were dismayed to see a cut in its funding. It's completely counterintuitive."

In the Senate version of agriculture appropriations, the unit received flat funding. However, the House version followed a Clinton administration recommendation to cut the funding. Giddings said industry representatives were assured that the conference report of the omnibus package would restore the funding to fiscal 1998 levels. However, the bill signed into law failed to do that.

"We have asked to meet with the Secretary [of Agriculture Dan Glickman] to make sure this shortfall is restored," Giddings said.

The biotech unit at APHIS manages every field experiment conducted on genetically engineered crops, from drought resistant soybeans to pest resistant corn. In the first quarter of 1998, the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved 870 requests to field-test such crops, almost double the approvals made during the same period in 1997.

Agricultural biotechnology has a tumultuous existence in Europe, where well-organized opponents have taken to questioning the products' safety, pointing to what they call a weak regulatory structure in the U.S. that is equivalent to a rubber stamp. In the past, APHIS reviewers have had to travel overseas to document exactly how much oversight these crops command under U.S. law.

With an expanding workload, Giddings questions not only how well the unit will be able to manage its workload, but how it will respond to growing international concerns.

"[Activists] have said there is no regulation in the United States," Giddings said. "APHIS has in the past presented the U.S. regulatory requirements directly to European regulators. That is a far cry from leaving the stage empty to [activists], who say APHIS does nothing the ensure safety."

The cut in funding will most likely prevent any international travel for APHIS employees, which will check any ability the unit has to offer counter arguments in favor of new innovative agricultural products, Giddings said.

In a letter, BIO president Carl Feldbaum has requested that Glickman find a means to restore the appropriations, noting that the cut "sends an misleading and potentially damaging signal regarding a valuable technology that is currently under siege in the international marketplace."

Giddings said the situation is ironic. " A misguided opposition is standing in the way of an important, environmentally friendly technology," he said. n