The USDA wants to increase its oversight of field trials for genetically engineered wheat due to past unauthorized releases of the crop.
The agency recently proposed requiring permits to conduct field trials for transgenic wheat, which is more rigorous than the current system of simply notifying regulators of such tests.
A variety of genetically engineered wheat resistant to glyphosate herbicides was found in an Oregon field in 2013, which prompted a USDA investigation because the cultivar wasn’t deregulated.
During its investigation, the agency found more unauthorized biotech wheat growing at an agricultural research station in Montana in 2014.
Due to those incidents, the USDA decided to enhance its regulatory requirements for field trials by mandating permits, which “will help prevent future compliance issues, protect plant health and the environment, and allow for flexibility in the length of the volunteer monitoring period and the specific permit conditions used to address how volunteers of GE wheat will be appropriately managed,” according to the agency.
For example, the agency can require biotech developers to regularly submit volunteer monitoring reports.
In 2015, biotech developers have notified the USDA of 620 acres of genetically engineered wheat field trials.
Most field trials for biotech crops are conducted under such notifications, which don’t require the USDA to establish basic standards prior to approving planting, said George Kimbrell, attorney for the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit that’s critical of federal biotech oversight.
“There’s no actual pre-planting approval like there is with a permit,” he said.
It’s yet to be determined whether requiring permits for wheat will reduce escapes of the crop, but it’s significant that USDA has singled out wheat when unauthorized releases have also occurred with other crops, Kimbrell said.
The USDA’s announcement begs the question of why permits aren’t required for all field trials, he said. “It’s an indication field trial oversight has been inadequate.”
The Biotechnology Industry Organization, which represents developers, said it’s still reviewing USDA’s permit proposal for wheat.
“Much of the research in GE wheat, however, is currently being conducted by small companies and public institutions. At first glance, the (USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) proposal may have a greater impact on their ability to conduct field trials of GE wheat since they have fewer resources to deal with new regulatory requirements,” said Karen Batra, BIO’s food and agriculture communications director, in an email.
Monsanto, which developed the biotech wheat discovered in Oregon, also said it’s reviewing the proposal.
The company already works with industry and USDA stewardship programs to continuously improve its field trial process, a spokesperson said in an email.