U.S. to mull changes to oversight of biotech crops

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. oversight of genetically modified crops, which critics charge is insufficient, may be overhauled following a series of proposed changes released on Thursday by the Agriculture Department.

Cindy Smith, associate administrator with USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said any revisions it makes to its existing framework would be “the first comprehensive review of our regulatory structure” for genetically engineered crops.

One change USDA is considering would abandon the existing two-tiered permit system in favor of a multilevel one.

The new system would provide more stringent review for plants with which USDA is less familiar, or those that may pose an increased risk, such as plants that produce substances not intended for food use. Those engineered for herbicide tolerance or insect resistance would be less complicated.

The proposed changes would “expand our regulatory oversight while at the same time minimizing our regulatory burden for those (genetically engineered) organisms that have been safety field tested for more than 20 years,” said Rebecca Bech, an acting deputy administrator at APHIS.

USDA is also considering expanding its oversight to include organisms that have the potential to become noxious weeds. This would increase review of genetically engineered organisms that may damage crops to include plants that pose a broader risk to agriculture, the environment and public health.

The draft environmental impact statement, which evaluates potential revisions to existing regulations, will be open to public comment for 60 days starting on Friday.

The draft, public comments and further scientific information will be used to create a proposed rule. USDA first announced in 2004 it was beginning a review of its biotech regulations.


Consumer groups, environmentalists and organic farmers oppose biotech crops, which they fear could mix with other crops or develop super weeds resistant to herbicides.

Currently, USDA no longer has oversight of a plant once it is deregulated and determined to be safe.

“We’re exploring whether a different type of system might be applicable,” said John Turner, another biotechnology official at


“You might envision a system where certain things would be unconditionally approved ... whereas others might be approved with conditions,” he said.

A string of court cases has criticized USDA oversight. In May, U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer upheld a ban on the planting of a genetically modified alfalfa crop variety developed by Monsanto Co. until government studies on its environmental effects were concluded.

The judge found in a preliminary injunction that U.S. regulators had not properly examined the effects of the alfalfa before allowing it to be commercialized.

A separate ruling in February by a District of Columbia judge found “substantial evidence that the field tests may have had the potential to affect significantly the quality of the human environment.”