The USDA has again backed away from regulating genetically engineered crops as potential noxious weeds, 17 years after gaining the legal authority to do so.
Congress originally granted USDA the power to evaluate and possibly restrict genetically engineered crops based on their risk to become noxious weeds in 2000.
Traditionally, biotech crops have been evaluated and regulated by the agency based on their potential to become plant pests, akin to diseases or parasites.
The USDA proposed new regulations taking advantage of its biotech jurisdiction over noxious weeds under the new law in 2008 but then rescinded them in 2015.
Another set of rules affirming the agency’s authority over biotech noxious weeds was proposed in the final days of the Obama administration early this year.
The Trump administration has now withdrawn that proposal as well, vowing to “take a fresh look, explore policy alternatives, and continue the dialogue with all interested stakeholders.”
Critics of the federal government’s oversight of genetic engineering are frustrated by the USDA’s retraction, even though they weren’t entirely happy with the Obama administration’s proposed revisions.
“We’re in limbo right now, and Trump’s USDA wants to keep up in this state of limbo,” said Bill Freese, science policy analyst for the Center of Food Safety, a nonprofit that’s been involved in litigation over biotechnology.
Biotech developers, meanwhile, were cheered by the rescission because they think USDA should take additional time to refine the regulations, which contained both positive and negative elements for the industry.
“We don’t think they should throw the whole baby out with the bathwater,” but some aspects of the Obama-era proposal bear closer scrutiny, said Karen Batra, food and agriculture communications director for the Biotechnology Industry Organization.
Biotech critics were hoping the new regulations would be interpreted broadly, potentially allowing the USDA to restrict genetically modified organisms that disrupt international markets and accelerate the weediness of other plants.
“We’ve argued all along that herbicide-resistant crop systems are promoters of herbicide-resistant weeds,” said Freese of the Center for Food Safety.
When glyphosate is sprayed on crops that have been genetically engineered to withstand the chemical, for example, the process inadvertently selects for weeds that can withstand it as well.
Over time, those resistant weeds reproduce and render glyphosate less effective overall.
“Our regulators have done absolutely nothing,” said Freese.
The organization also believed that USDA could also invoke its noxious weed authority against GMOs that hinder exports of U.S. crops to foreign countries.
The agency already bars importation of certain conventional crops because they have the potential to harbor noxious weed seeds, Freese said.
While the Center for Food Safety disagreed with aspects of the rules — such as the exclusion of gene-edited crops from regulation — it thought they should be enacted and strengthened over time, he said.
Biotech developers, conversely, applauded the USDA’s approach to gene-edited crops, in which the genetic code is altered without incorporating DNA from other organisms.
“We thought that was a positive step,” Batra said.
Nonetheless, BIO was dissatisfied with USDA’s proposed risk assessment approach for GMOs, under which release into the environment wouldn’t be allowed until a crop is determined not to be a plant pest or noxious weed.
Currently, biotech developers can obtain permits to test GMOs in the field and transport them between states until the crops are fully deregulated by USDA.
The new “up front” approach would serve as a barrier to developing GMOs, particularly for public universities and small companies with limited resources who would face uncertain regulation, according to BIO.
“That type of ambiguity would hinder people trying to bring things into the process,” Batra said.