WASHINGTON, Nov. 9, 2016 - Some farm and agribusiness sectors are concerned that USDA is moving forward with a plan to overhaul its rules for regulating genetically engineered crops separately from a broader, government-wide review of biotech regulations.

The concerns came up in comments filed with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) by several trade groups, including those representing seed companies, grain processors and the fruit and vegetable sector.

The proposal by USDA’s Biotechnology Regulatory Services is aimed at updating its regulatory requirements, known as Part 340, to reflect advances in bioengineering techniques and products. The BRS plan, which has not been released, is under review at the Office of Management and Budget at the same time the OSTP is in the middle of the sweeping review of the way BRS, FDA and EPA regulate biotechnology, a system known as the “Coordinated Framework.”

Ironically, coordination is just what the farm and agribusiness groups say is missing from the fact that BRS is moving forward with its Part 340 proposal.

“Recently, we have been concerned at the lack of policy coordination between the three federal agencies involved in the Coordinated Framework,” wrote the American Seed Trade Association. “Even before the administration’s review was completed and published for public comment, USDA published a notice in the Federal Register announcing plans to update its biotechnology regulations at CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) part 340.” The United Fresh Produce Association included similar wording in its comments.

Grain and oilseed traders, who are worried about the impact that changing U.S. regulations could have on acceptance of biotech crops in foreign markets, warned that moving ahead with the Part 340 proposal before finishing the Coordinated Framework review “will result in confusion in the international marketplace and with key U.S. trading partners, potentially damaging the U.S. economy and running the risk of requiring additional rulemaking in the future.” The industry’s comments were jointly signed by the Corn Refiners Association, National Grain and Feed Association, National Oilseed Processors Association, North American Export Grain Association, and North American Millers’ Association.

The five groups also said it was a “serious omission” not to include the U.S. Trade Representative in the review and that the administration should be working with importing countries to ensure American regulations are compatible with theirs. In a separate filing, the  American Farm Bureau Federation and groups representing corn and soybean growers also urged the administration to consult with USTR in carrying out any changes to U.S. biotech regulations.

The cotton industry’s concerns focus on whether the EPA could hold up approval of new biotech crops. EPA regulates chemicals that are used with herbicide-tolerant crops and also biotech crops that are engineered to be toxic to pests. The National Cotton Council says EPA is using epidemiological studies to assess the risk of pesticides without releasing the data to the public or providing guidelines on how those studies are being used.

Several consumer advocacy groups used their comments to urge the government to stiffen its regulations or even require labeling of genetically engineered foods, an issue that was supposed to be settled by the GMO disclosure law enacted this summer.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group that has generally supported agricultural biotechnology, argued in its comments that the administration could increase public confidence in genetically engineered foods by requiring FDA to review safety data on every biotech crop. The review process is now voluntary although companies routinely subject data to the agency.

“The safety of GE crops will continue to be questioned by a significant portion of the U.S. population if the only entity ensuring those foods are safe is the GE crop developer (which is what happens under the current FDA voluntary review),” CSPI said.

The group also said that better coordination between USDA and EPA on regulation of herbicide-tolerant crops could lead to restrictions on their use that would prevent the development of resistant weeds.


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