EPA regulator says set to release key herbicide report, lauds biopesticides

By Carey Gillam WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Environmental Protection Agency has wrapped up its review of the world's most widely used herbicide and plans to release a much-anticipated preliminary risk assessment no later than July, the regulator's chief pesticide regulator told Reuters. The EPA review of the health and environmental impacts of glyphosate comes at a time of intense debate over the safety of the chemical, and after the World Health Organization's cancer research unit declared in March that glyphosate was "probably carcinogenic to humans." Jim Jones, assistant administrator for the EPA Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, told Reuters in an interview that the EPA's review of the health and environmental impacts of glyphosate was concluded months ago, but its report was delayed to allow the agency to learn more about the WHO findings. Jones said he expects the preliminary risk assessment to generate extensive public interest and comment. Glyphosate is an ingredient in Roundup herbicide and more than 700 other products sold globally. It is popular with farmers, and is used broadly on genetically altered corn, soybeans and other crops. Monsanto Co, the maker of Roundup, made roughly $5 billion in revenue last year from glyphosate. Jones declined to provide details about the EPA's conclusions. The agency already has said it will require some weed resistance mitigation measures. Glyphosate-resistant weeds are spreading across U.S. farmland, raising costs for farmers and hurting crop production. Consumer and environmental groups cite a range of concerns about the chemical and have been demanding restrictions on its use, but agribusiness companies say there are no valid safety concerns and that the chemical is a key agricultural tool. Jones said he is trying to understand the "mood" of the general public, but the agency's actions will be based solely on scientific research. "I feel no pressure from anybody but my boss... get it right and get it done," Jones said. After the EPA issues the preliminary risk assessment for glyphosate, the agency will take public comments before formalizing a final regulatory proposal. The EPA's upcoming draft risk assessment on glyphosate comes at a time when Monsanto and other agrichemical companies are developing biopesticides, which are based on natural organisms like plant and soil microbes rather than synthetic chemicals, and seen by some as alternatives to traditional pesticides. Jones said the EPA is encouraging development of biopesticides because they "have very favorable human health and environmental profiles." He said they are likely to overtake synthetic chemicals in agriculture at some point if their use continues what he called "dramatic" growth. "We’re pretty bullish about them," said Jones. "We go out of our way... to express our enthusiasm for biopesticides." The EPA is generally approving biopesticides in under a year compared to two to three years for synthetic chemical pesticides, Jones said. The EPA has approved more than 430 biological active ingredients for use in pesticides and use in U.S. agriculture climbed to 4.1 million pounds in 2012, up from 900,000 pounds in 2000, Jones said. (Reporting By Carey Gillam; Editing by Christian Plumb)