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Biotechnology

USDA scales back oversight of genetically modified crops

Companies will determine whether biotech products need regulatory review

by Britt E. Erickson
May 15, 2020

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Credit: Shutterstock
Companies will determine whether new genetically modified crops are exempt from regulation under a new USDA rule.

The US Department of Agriculture will leave it up to companies to determine whether their biotech crops are likely to pose a plant-pest risk, according to a rule expected to be finalized May 18. If a company believes that a crop is unlikely to pose a risk to other plants and therefore doesn’t need to go through the lengthy regulatory process, it will not need to inform the USDA.

The USDA claims that the new rule will help get innovative crops developed using genetic engineering and gene editing onto the market faster and reduce unnecessary regulatory burdens for developers. Companies will assess the risk posed by a crop based on the properties of the plants, not on how they were produced. Crops deemed to be low plant-pest risks will be exempt from regulation.

Environmental and public health advocacy groups, however, say the rule will leave consumers in the dark about new biotech products and whether they should be exempt from regulation.

“The result is that government regulators and the public will have no idea what products will enter the market and whether those products appropriately qualified for an exemption from oversight,” Gregory Jaffe, biotechnology project director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says in a statement. “They will stealthily enter our food supply at a time when consumers want greater transparency, leading to potential consumer backlash and acceptance problems, even for safe and beneficial products.”

The rule is in line with President Donald Trump’s June 2019 executive order that directed the USDA, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency to streamline the process for approving biotech crops, including those produced by gene editing. The changes are the first major overhaul to the regulations since 1987.

Environmental groups have been pushing for many years for stronger regulation of genetically engineered crops, arguing that safeguards are needed to prevent contamination of traditional crops, pesticide-resistant weeds, and huge increases in herbicides used on crops that are genetically modified to tolerate such chemicals. Instead of fixing those deficiencies and strengthening the regulatory system to ensure proper oversight, “the revised regulations dramatically scale back USDA’s regulatory authority, leaving most GMOs unregulated,” Sylvia Wu, senior attorney at the Center for Food Safety, says in a statement.

EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler welcomed the new rule, noting that the EPA is working on its own efforts to reduce unnecessary regulations and break down barriers to advancements in biotechnology. “We plan to issue our proposed rule early this summer,” he says in a statement released by the USDA.

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