Critics say a loophole in federal regulations for genetically engineered crops will backfire against biotech companies.
Under current rules, USDA can only restrict biotech crops if they incorporate genes that pose a possible plant pest risk.
Many common genetically modified crops relied on a soil bacteria for gene transfer and thus were regulated until the agency determined they weren’t a hazard to other plants.
Since 2011, though, USDA has allowed companies to freely cultivate biotech crops without any environmental analysis because they’re not made with genes from plant pathogens.
Recent examples include varieties of glyphosate-resistant tall fescue, a non-bruising potato and a higher-density pine tree.
These approvals of biotech crops are a “trickle that turned into stream” and undermine claims by large biotech developers that genetically modified organisms are robustly scrutinized by the federal government, said George Kimbrell, attorney for the Center for Food Safety, a group that wants stronger biotech regulations.
“They need the facade,” Kimbrell said.
Most of the biotech crops allowed to sidestep USDA’s environmental reviews were developed by universities and small start-up companies, not major agribusiness firms that already dominate the market for biotech seed.
Minimal USDA oversight of GMOs that pose no plant pest risk will create problems for the mainstream biotech industry, as it strengthens the case for stronger regulations, said Frank Morton, an organic seed producer from Philomath, Ore., who sued the federal government over biotech sugar beets.
Trading partners may disregard USDA’s conclusions that crops altered with “gene gun” technology don’t fall under its biotech jurisdiction, he said.
Export complications created by unregulated biotech grass varieties could prompt calls for the Oregon Department of Agriculture to step in with state restrictions, he said.
Several such proposals will be considered by Oregon lawmakers during the current legislative session, said Ivan Maluski, policy director for Friends of Family Farmers, a group that supports stronger GMO regulations.
The legislature pre-empted local governments from setting GMO rules in 2013 with the idea that such regulations should be statewide rather than a county-by-county “patchwork,” he said.
While Oregon lawmakers have in the past been reticent to broach the GMO issue, advocates for stronger regulation can now hold their feet to the fire, Maluski said.
The Biotechnology Industry Organization believes that federal agencies adequately regulate biotech crops, including those produced with gene guns that aren’t considered possible plant pests, said Clint Nesbitt, the group’s director of regulatory affairs for food and agriculture.
Those that are resistant to herbicides, like certain turf grasses, would still need to be approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, he said.
“Current regulations cover all the risk of biotech,” Nesbitt said, adding that non-GMO crops aren’t subject to any regulatory scrutiny.
As for export concerns, that issue is not limited to biotech crops produced with gene guns, he said. “To some extent, that is always a concern with biotech crops. There is a patchwork of regulations all over the world.”
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber has proposal legislation — Senate Bill 207 — that would allow the Oregon Department of Agriculture to extend its “control area” authority to genetically modified crops that have been deregulated by USDA. The agency would be able to restrict production of GMOs within the control area limits. Its current control area authority is limited to biotech crops still under federal jurisdiction.
Legislation introduced in the House — House Bill 2674 — would require ODA to establish control areas for GMOS.
Under a separate bill, H.B. 2675, seed merchants would have to provide ODA with copies of royalty agreements for GMOs they’ve sold. The agency would also be able to set production areas for GMOs. Outside those boundaries, biotech crops would be under “control area” authority or prohibited, as determined by ODA.
Maluski called these concepts “a step in the right direction.”
“They represent to me a progression of this discussion,” he said.