(Beyond Pesticides, April 25, 2011) The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has issued a proposal which would allow industry groups seeking deregulation of genetically engineered (GE) products to submit their own environmental evaluations as part of the deregulation process. The proposal, detailed in the Federal Register notice, launches a pilot program that would allow companies to either (1) prepare an environmental report, which APHIS would then use to develop an environmental assessment (EA) or environmental impact statement (EIS), or (2) contract out to a third party group, which would prepare the actual EA or EIS and submit it to APHIS. Under the second option, the company would provide the funding for developing the EA or EIS, while APHIS would choose the actual contractor.
APHIS is calling the proposal the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) Pilot Project. NEPA, first passed in 1969 and later amended, requires the agency to evaluate any potential environmental effects of releasing GE materials into the environment (see relevant regulations at 7 CFR 340). Under these regulations, GE materials are considered by default to be “regulated articles,” meaning that APHIS must govern and issue permits for their importation, interstate movement, or environmental release. However, anyone — usually manufacturers — can petition the agency to determine that a particular GE product does not need to be regulated. Part of this petition process requires APHIS to prepare an EA or EIS to, in theory, ensure that there are no adverse environmental impacts of deregulation. The integrity of previous EIS’s has recently been brought into question, notably that of Monsanto’s GE alfalfa.
Previously, APHIS itself prepared the appropriate environmental reports. It has proposed the NEPA Pilot Project partly out of concern that the process is too resource intensive. However, advocates point out that NEPA charges the agency with performing these duties. Advocates say it is reasonable to expect the agency to allocate resources in a way that would allow it to lend appropriate time and energy to its evaluation of GE products, especially in light of recent concern and controversy over what some have perceived as its lack of dedication to the regulatory review process. The project will operate in the pilot stage for two years, after which APHIS will evaluate the results of the project and determine which evaluation option it believes is the most successful and cost effective for future petitions.
The APHIS proposal is similar to provisions in the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) governing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) regulation of pesticides. This law allows pesticide companies seeking to have their products registered, or approved for use, by EPA to submit their own studies, or studies which they have funded, regarding the health and environmental safety of their product. Advocates have voiced concern that the FIFRA process, and now potentially the NEPA Pilot Project, essentially allow chemical manufacturers and agribusiness corporations to regulate themselves, providing the public with little assurance of the safety of approved products.
For more information regarding genetic engineering of agricultural crops and the recent controversy surrounding USDA’s approval of several new varieties, including GE alfalfa and GE sugar beets, see our genetic engineering program page and other Daily News blog entries.