The U.S. Government Accountability Office recommends that USDA establish a timeline for updating its regulations regarding genetically engineered crops in a report issued March 15.
Three agencies have primary responsibility for regulating GE crops and food in the United States: USDA, EPA and FDA. USDA and industry groups estimate that at least 90% of many major commercial crops are GE varieties. Proponents say GE crops offer greater pest resistance, use less labor-intensive processes to control weeds, and result in increased productivity to feed growing populations. Opponents cite a lack of consensus on impacts to agriculture, the environment and human health.
The GAO examined:
1. Steps the EPA, Food and Drug Administration and USDA have taken to regulate genetically engineered crops.
2. The data USDA has on the extent and impact of unintended mixing of GE and non-GE crops and what steps have been taken to prevent mixing.
3. The extent to which USDA, EPA and FDA provide information to the public on GE crops.
The EPA regulates certain GE crops as part of its pesticide registration process. FDA works with companies that develop GE crops through its voluntary consultation process to consider food safety issues. Both agencies apply the same processes to regulate GE and non-GE crops, regardless of how the GE crop was developed.
However, USDA’s GE-crop regulations pertain only to crops for which the donor, vector or recipient of the genetic material is a plant pest. USDA took steps to update its regulations in 2008, but withdrew its proposed rule in February 2015. USDA still intends to update its regulations, but it has no timeline for doing so. Until a rule is finalized, USDA lacks authority to assess the potential risks posed by GE crops created with alternative technologies.
USDA has limited data on the extent and impact of unintended mixing of GE and non-GE crops, according to USDA officials and stakeholders. USDA officials said that the agency has generally not collected information on unintended mixing in past farmer surveys because no specific request had been made to obtain this information.
In a 2012 report, the USDA Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture (AC21) recommended that the agency fund or conduct research, including quantifying actual economic losses incurred by farmers as a result of unintended mixing.
In its 2014 Organic Survey, USDA surveyed organic farmers on economic losses from unintended GE presence in their crops offered for sale. The survey results indicated that economic losses caused by unintended GE material in organic crops offered for sale exist at very small levels.
USDA does not have similar data for farmers using non-GE seed and marketing their crops as identity-preserved. Without including farmers growing identity-preserved crops in addition to those growing organic crops in its survey efforts, USDA is missing key information on the potential economic impacts of unintended mixing. USDA has taken some steps to address unintended mixing, such as reviving AC21, as have farmers and the agribusiness industry.
USDA, EPA, and FDA provide varying degrees of information about their oversight of GE crops to the public. USDA and EPA regularly provide information and updates on actions relating to their oversight of GE crops on their websites and use a number of mechanisms to obtain public input on their actions. FDA provides information on GE crops relating to its consultation process.
Source: Government Accountability Office