The organic community is increasingly challenged by genetically engineered (GE) crops (or GMOs) showing up in organic seed and crops. Genetic engineering is an excluded method in the organic standards, providing economic and environmental risks to farmers, their markets, and the genetic integrity of seed. 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. The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has published its newest plan for updating these regulations for the first time since they were developed in the 1980s. Unfortunately, the USDA’s latest proposal takes US policy backwards and represents a departure from the USDA’s mission to support the success of all forms of agriculture, including organic and other markets that avoid products of agricultural biotechnology.
The proposal provides a near guarantee that broader negative impacts associated with GE crops will continue to be overlooked, such as the herbicide drift wreaking havoc across the country due to GE, Dicamba-resistant crops. 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 leaves it up to developers of agricultural biotechnology to determine if their products should be regulated or not. This non-regulatory approach will greatly reduce the amount of GE crops being reviewed 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 federal authority.
USDA needs to use its mandated 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 crops derived through biotechnology. For example, USDA has ample authority to address broader agricultural, environmental, economic, and social problems 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.
Less regulation and oversight is unacceptable
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. In particular, we are disappointed that APHIS has decided to completely shift its approach to regulating biotechnology by moving from a process-based to product-based approach. APHIS should regulate biotechnology products based on the process by which they are created, using genetic engineering as the trigger for regulatory review. Process-based regulations are appropriate for overseeing new technologies, as recommended by the National Academy of Sciences. Characteristics of biotechnology products should still be included in process-based assessments, but adhering only to product-based criteria leaves it up to industry to determine which products should be regulated – a clear weakness in this proposal that, among other concerns, will engender mistrust among trade partners.
APHIS should retain exclusive authority to determine whether its regulations apply to a particular organism, rather than allowing applicants to decide whether their products are subject to regulations. Voluntary and non-regulatory approaches are unacceptable. Companies developing GE products should not regulate their own products. Mandatory regulations are needed, and independent analyses must inform regulatory decisions.
A genuine overhaul of USDA regulations could lead to more public confidence in our regulatory system and protect farmers and the diverse markets they supply. Powerful interests are at play, but people who want to see strong public policy in this area can prevail if they speak up.