(Beyond Pesticides, October 9, 2008) The Center for Food Safety challenged today U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) new proposed regulations for the oversight of growing genetically engineered (GE) crops, some of which contain insecticides and many of which are herbicide tolerant. It is the Center’s view that while stricter regulation of growing and field testing GE crops is needed, the USDA proposal fails to fully protect the public’s safety or the environment. The Center contends that these proposed regulations may set in motion a process that would put many GE crops completely beyond the bounds of regulation, and outside the safety net designed to protect the American public.
Among the many concerns about genetically engineered foods is the impact they may have on insect and weed resistance to pesticides. Crops engineered to contain the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) threaten the long-term efficacy of Bt, which is an approved insecticide in organic farming. Crops engineered to be herbicide tolerant, such as Roundup Ready soy, contribute to the increased use of toxic herbicides, leading to resistance.
“The USDA has missed a golden opportunity to improve its oversight of genetically engineered crops,” said Bill Freese, Science Policy Analyst for the Center for Food Safety. “This USDA proposal has the same gaping holes as the policy it is replacing, and creates a few new ones, as well.”
According to the Center, the biggest concern is that the proposed rules remove established criteria vital in determining the very scope of regulation. Previously, regulation of GE crops was based on the presence of genetic elements from a list of “plant pests” codified under Section 340.2 (Part 340, Introduction of Organisms and Products Altered or Produced, Title 7). This fairly comprehensive list covers almost all of the genetic elements companies use to engineer crops. However, under the new policy, the USDA proposes “deleting the list of organisms which are or contain plant pests,” effectively removing triggers to regulation and leaving the decision to the discretion of USDA or even biotech companies themselves.
“Whether a GE crop falls within the scope of regulation or not will now be much more open to interpretation,” continued Mr. Freese. “We can expect the range of GE organisms subject to oversight to decrease over time, allowing for future food safety regulatory failures.”
USDA also failed to address the epidemic of herbicide-resistant weeds associated with ubiquitous herbicide-tolerant GE crops. Resistant weeds have led to increased use of chemical weed killers, rising production costs for growers, and in some cases accelerated soil erosion caused by the additional mechanical tillage required to remove resistant weeds.
Another overlooked key area is the use of food crops for biopharming. The USDA proposal will continue to allow the controversial practice of growing food crops engineered as “biofactories” for pharmaceuticals and industrial compounds. Over the last several years, these crops have come dangerously close to being comingled with those destined for the human food supply, raising the possibility of untested pharmaceutical proteins ending up in our food.
The Center also believes that USDA has failed to properly address the issue of conventional and organic crop contamination by GE varieties. This contamination often occurs through cross-pollination or seed dispersal, and has cost farmers hundreds of millions of dollars in lost sales and lowered profits. The new policy incorporates the USDA’s Low Level Presence Policy, which states that “low level contamination” is no longer actionable. Given this, USDA can choose to allow contamination of conventional or organic crops by untested GE experimental crops to occur without the need to stop interstate shipments of the contaminated crops.
“The USDA is treading dangerous new ground here,” added Mr. Freese. “While they appear at first glance to be tightening regulation of an industry that desperately needs better oversight, the structure of the new proposal actually opens loopholes that can be exploited by biotech companies and expose consumers to more untested and unlabeled genetically engineered foods.”
For more on genetically engineered crops, visit our program page.