In my last blog, I suggested some strategies for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to use to move new technologies more quickly into conservation practice standards. Establishing a petitioning system for new practices would enable farmers to get the help they need to install the most up-to-date and most cost-effective practices. 

USDA also needs to move forward more quickly in evaluating and approving new biotechnology crop varieties. It’s time for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to play catch up with the applications stuck in the pipeline and then keep up with the flow of requests for evaluation of genetically-engineered crops. If they can’t do this, setting statutory time limits for application reviews may prove necessary.

The United States has been the undisputed leader in creating and adopting genetically-engineered crops, but if we don’t find a way to process applications faster, we will be lagging behind both our customers and our competitors. Brazil and China are streamlining their regulatory systems for GE crops. As a result, it’s possible that half the new varieties developed over the next four years will be planted first not in the American heartland, but in the heart of Asia or South America.

Today, it costs crop developers from $5 million to $25 million to navigate the regulatory process, proving that their new crops don’t pose a risk as a plant pest or a noxious weed. In addition to the financial hurdle, this process also takes several years, using up valuable patent time. 

Currently, at least a dozen petitions for deregulation have been stalled at APHIS for two years or longer. Non-biotech varieties with similar characteristics face no such regulatory barrier. In addition, lawsuits over environmental evaluations have posed an additional obstacle, further delaying an already slow permitting process. The safety of biotech crops is well-established, based on repeated scientific evaluations. As a result, APHIS has never denied a deregulation request.

A bogged-down approval process is discouraging to biotech developers and detrimental to American farmers who will be at an increasingly large disadvantage compared with their international competitors. It’s time to address this situation and get new biotech crops from the lab to field trials to production in a reasonable timeframe. 

To speed up the review process, I believe Congress should consider setting a statutory time limit on APHIS review periods, both for authorizing field trials and accepting or denying petitions for non-regulated status of new biotech varieties. We need to create a reasonable and reliable timeline for applicants, while allowing an appropriate, timely evaluation of the science.  

America is fortunate to have innovative agricultural scientists who are on the forefront in developing high-yielding crop varieties that can withstand the challenges of pests, weeds and drought. As we seek to help feed a growing world population, we need the advantages that biotech crops can provide. We need to encourage development of additional varieties.

To maintain our leadership in biotechnology, the U.S. needs a reliable approval process for GE crops with a reasonable timeframe for evaluating the science, okaying field trials and finalizing review of new GE varieties. It’s time for USDA to take action and work through its backlog. It’s also time for Congress to examine the delays and take action if the Department is unwilling or unable to step forward. 

Biotech crops will be an important part of the increased production that will be needed to feed a growing world population. We can’t afford further delay.

About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems.

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