By Karl Plume and P.J. Huffstutter
CHICAGO (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Friday signed off on a new genetically modified type of corn developed by Monsanto Co after a review concluded it posed no significant threat to agricultural crops, other plants or the environment.
The USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) announced it would deregulate Monsanto's MON 87411 maize, which was developed to protect plants against corn rootworms that can damage roots and drag down grain yields and be tolerant to the herbicide glyphosate.
The so-called trait would be inserted into a line of corn seeds' genetic code and could be "stacked" with other traits.
Glyphosate, which the World Health Organization has said is "probably" linked to cancer, is the active weed-killing ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup and other herbicides produced by farm chemical companies.
The agency's move is a step in the multiyear process of commercializing genetically engineered seed traits. Other steps include assessments by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and regulators in other countries.
The EPA's review is still ongoing. The agency's scientific advisory panel has raised red flags on the issue, however, and criticized weak guidelines in assessing the risks of such biotechnology, said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist at advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council. Among their concerns: better understanding the impact on pollinators like bees and other insects.
Monsanto is planning a full commercial launch of its SmartStax PRO, a line of products featuring MON 87411 maize, by the end of the decade pending necessary regulatory approvals, the company said in a statement.
Separately, APHIS said Friday it was extending the comment period for a genetically-engineered corn trait developed by Syngenta Seeds Inc., a unit of Syngenta AG, for 30 days.
Syngenta's genetically engineered MZHG0JG corn is resistant to glyphosate and glufosinate – an herbicide combination the company says will expand options for farmers battling the growing problem of weed resistance, but one that critics say will fuel the problem.
As of 2014, there were 14 different glyphosate-resistant weed species and one resistant to glufosinate, according to the USDA's preliminary findings of the Syngenta petition. The risk of herbicide-resistant weed development will be ever present where herbicides are used, the assessment added.
Syngenta could not be immediately reached for comment.
The regulatory moves come amid increased scrutiny of glyphosate following a report issued in March by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer that said it can "probably" cause cancer.
Monsanto and others have challenged the report's findings, but the controversy continues.
California environmental officials have announced plans to list the herbicide as cancer-causing, a move Monsanto is trying to block. The company recently told state regulators that such actions could be considered illegal because they are not considering valid scientific evidence.
Monsanto is also facing mounting litigation over the issue as law firms representing U.S. farm workers have filed lawsuits against the company, accusing it of knowing of the dangers of glyphosate for decades.
Monsanto said the claims are without merit.
(Editing by Tom Brown)