The Department of Agriculture issued a proposal for how to treat genetically modified crops in the future, amounting to an overhaul.
As with plenty of other products, the development of genetically modified crops generally moves much faster than the regulation. The Trump administration recently announced a proposal for what they call the first “comprehensive revision” of the rules for regulating GM crops since 1987 (at least, if it’s approved; the Obama administration also proposed one). So what does it look like?
The biggest revision for GM crops would be an exemption for those projects that are “similar in kind”—this would have to be spelled out more precisely at some later point—to crops that could be created using traditional methods like crossbreeding. In other words, if you want to make, say, a drought-resistant wheat strain, you could theoretically find a wild strain of wheat that can put up with low rainfall and crossbreed, and crossbreed again, until you get a strain you like. Or, you could simply snip out the gene responsible for efficient water use, splice it into some other strain of wheat, and you’d be done. Under the new proposal, that sort of project would be exempt from USDA regulation.
The administration says that by removing barriers for low-risk projects like these, they’ll free up resources, like money and staff, to more fully examine newer, complex projects that aren’t similar to already-approved stuff. Essentially, the new setup would mean that once something is already approved, “similar” projects would have a green light. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the division of the USDA responsible for inspections, would devote most of its energy to unfamiliar projects.
But companies wanting exemption for their projects would also have the ability to “self-determine” whether that project qualifies. The company could then have the option—but doesn’t seem required— to get official confirmation from APHIS. Basically, this puts power in the hands of agribusiness, who can now stamp their own projects with regulatory exemptions.
Agribusiness and large agricultural groups have been generally in favor of the proposal; the American Seed Trade Association, for example, told Agri-Pulse that the proposal is a “much-needed action.” But the proposal to, effectively, make it easier for GM crops to hit testing and market stages might have some bad timing.
Shortly after the proposal was released, unapproved genetically modified wheat was found in Washington state. No GM wheat has been approved; it’s theorized that this wheat came from a decades-old test. Finding GM wheat where it doesn’t belong is a major problem: many countries, including China, do not allow certain GM crops, which could kill exports. And then there’s the added risk of, basically, illegal wheat breeding with approved wheat. Who knows what could happen?
The USDA’s new proposal is currently accepting comments.