The organic community is increasingly challenged by genetically engineered (GE) crops (also known as GMOs) showing up in organic seed and crops. Genetic engineering is an excluded method in the organic standards, providing economic and environmental risks (and harm) to farmers, their markets, and the genetic integrity of seed. In 2014, OSA conducted a survey of US organic crop growers that included questions about GE crops. We found that the majority of these farmers (71%) believe that federal regulations overseeing GE crop approvals aren’t adequate for protecting their farm products.
New and improved regulations, coupled with stronger oversight and enforcement, are long overdue. That’s why we submitted comments this week in response to USDA’s proposal to comprehensively update its biotechnology regulations for the first time since they were developed in 1987. Unfortunately, the proposal as written takes US policy backwards and represents a departure from the USDA’s mission to support the success of all forms of agriculture, including organic. The proposal provides a near guarantee that the broader risks and negative impacts associated with GE crops will continue to be overlooked. Some of the overarching problems with the proposal include:
- USDA interprets its mandated authority too narrowly, which results in the dismissal of real and potential risks associated with GE crops as part of agency reviews and decisions.
- The proposal will reduce the amount of GE crops that are regulated and therefore lessen oversight of GE crops in open-air, experimental field trials.
- The proposal fails to fill regulatory gaps that currently exist and that are best filled under its authority.
We find USDA’s approach and premise fundamentally flawed due to self-imposed restrictions on its authority. Despite being provided broad authority for regulating GE crops under the Plant Protection Act, USDA continues to interpret its authority in an overly narrow manner and in so doing abdicates a more robust role in ensuring independent and proper reviews of GE crops. For example, USDA has ample authority to address broader agricultural, environmental, economic, and social harms associated with the proliferation of GE crops. These harms include genetic contamination of organic seed and crops, the evolution of herbicide-resistant weeds, crop damage from herbicide drift, and impacts to human health and natural resources from increased herbicide use, among others.
Instead of embracing the full breadth of its authority, USDA is proposing to weaken regulatory requirements and processes, a hands-off approach that supports the introduction of GE crops at the expense of other forms of agricultural production, including organic. A genuine effort to improve regulations in a manner that reflects sound public policy and the mission of the USDA is contingent upon a fundamental shift in the agency’s interpretation (and use) of its authority. We hope the USDA ditches this proposal and develops a new one that protects organic agriculture and strengthens public confidence in the US regulatory process.