The U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) announced Friday the agency plans to prepare two separate environmental impact statements (EIS) to better inform decision-making regarding the regulatory status of crops genetically engineered (GE) to be resistant to the herbicides known as 2,4 dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) and dicamba.

APHIS' Notices of Intent to prepare these EIS's will officially publish in the Federal Register in the near future, and each notice will be accompanied by a 60-day public comment period.

These are the first GE plants developed to be resistant to these specific herbicides, which have been approved by the EPA and have been safely and widely used across the country since the 1960's to control weeds on crop and non-crop sites. If approved, these GE plants would provide farmers the flexibility for new applications of these herbicides, while also offering farmers additional crop planting options.

For the 2,4-D resistant plants (one corn and two soybean varieties), APHIS has previously made available for public review and comment petitions by Dow to deregulate the products, along with draft environmental assessments and plant pest risk assessments for two out of the three products. APHIS received approximately 8,200 comments, including petitions signed by more than 400,000 people in response to these documents.

Dow AgroSciences was quick to post a comment regarding the USDA announcement, which clarifies that the 2,4-D product and crop production system being referenced is the Enlist Weed Control System. “Consistent with USDA’s announcement today, we are confident in the value that the Enlist Weed Control System will provide to agriculture. We will continue to support our customers by working with USDA/APHIS to get the much-needed Enlist technologies approved for commercial use as soon as possible.”

The Dow statement went on to point out that even USDA notes the herbicides in question have been “safely and widely used across the country since the 1960s” and these new crop traits “would provide farmers the flexibility for new applications of these herbicides, while also offering farmers additional crop planting options.”

Four years ago, Dow AgroSciences began submissions of a data package to support the Enlist traits. Since that time there have been quickly spreading weed disasters of glyphosate-resistant and hard-to-control weeds affecting tens of thousands more farmland acres.

For the dicamba-resistant plants (one soybean and one cotton variety), APHIS previously made available for public review and comment petitions by Monsanto to deregulate the products. The comment period on the petition for the cotton variety recently closed on April 29, 2013. APHIS has received more than 500 individual comments and 31,000 form letters regarding these two petitions.

Monsanto’s response explained that Roundup Ready 2 Xtend soybeans and Bollgard II XtendFlex cotton are the seed/crops that will have dicamba resistance.

As similar to Dow, Monsanto “will continue its ongoing education and stakeholder outreach efforts to support the responsible introduction of these technologies in the coming seasons. This work includes product development, training, education and stewardship programs, as well as broad efforts with academics to support further recommendations of these systems in their local geographies.”

Monsanto said that it will work with farmers to support Ground Breakers trials of Roundup Ready 2 Xtend soybeans in the United States beginning this season and next, as planned; as well as support Ground Breakers trials of Bollgard II XtendFlex cotton in the 2014 season. The Monsanto Ground Breakers program allows on-farm testing under permit conditions prior to the commercialization of new technologies.

USDA comments received in response to all of the 2,4-D and dicamba documents have been similar in scope, ranging from the importance of making additional herbicide-resistant crops available for producers to focusing on the potential increased volume of herbicides containing 2,4-D and dicamba and their movement onto non-target crops in surrounding areas, as well as the potential for the development of herbicide-resistant weeds.

Under the National Environmental Policy Act, APHIS is required to evaluate the potential environmental impacts that could result from a deregulation of new GE plants by the agency. If APHIS finds that its potential regulatory decision may significantly affect the quality of the human environment, the agency must prepare an EIS before making a decision on the proposed Federal action.

With regard to these new herbicide-resistant plants, through its analysis of information submitted by the developers, as well as public comments, APHIS has determined that its regulatory decisions may significantly affect the quality of the human environment. APHIS therefore believes it necessary under NEPA to prepare these two EIS's to further assist the agency in evaluating any potential environmental impacts before we make a final determination regarding the products' regulatory status.

While the EIS's will look more broadly at potential impacts to the environment as a whole, APHIS' regulatory authority is based on The Plant Protection Act and the agency's oversight is specific to evaluating the potential for the GE plants to pose a plant pest risk to crops or other plants.

In preparing the EIS's, APHIS plans to host upcoming public meetings that will be publicized through the Federal Register and the Agency's Web site.