APHIS oversight of GMO trials lax

Our View

The discovery of a patch of unauthorized genetically modified wheat last year in an Eastern Oregon field raised questions about government oversight of biotech field trials.

Our reporting last summer confirmed the USDA’s oversight of biotech test plots, and of the resulting crops, is lax.

The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service gives companies conducting field tests leeway to meet certain performance standards to keep viable genetically modified seeds from spreading into neighboring fields or into the seed or food supply chains.

We think that makes more sense than a one-size-fits-all approach.

But the agency allows companies to execute their plans without any direct oversight, and depends on developers to self-report their compliance and any incidents where material has escaped. That doesn’t provide adequate protection against accidental release of genetically modified material.

Additional reporting last week revealed that APHIS doesn’t have a good handle on how many instances of accidental release have been reported.

On its website the agency lists a summary of 21 incidents to highlight its enforcement actions.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by the Capital Press for noncompliance incidents between 1998 and 2013, the agency provided information on 170 incidents. But a similar request by the Reuters news agency last year yielded information on 483 noncompliance incidents.

APHIS couldn’t immediately explain the discrepancy. It suggests to us that the agency’s recordkeeping is as lax as its oversight.

We continue to support the development of genetically modified crops and their cultivation when they serve the purposes of both their growers and the market.

And we remain opposed to unnecessary or heavy-handed regulation.

But here an extra set of eyes not financially linked to the developer on these trials is warranted. The agency also needs to do a better job ensuring the final disposition of the product of these trials.

These extra steps might not prevent the accidental release of unapproved genetically modified material, but they would provide consumers, farmers and critics more confidence in the approval process.

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