WASHINGTON (CN) - To protect wheat exports, permits will be required to grow any genetically engineered (GE) trials of wheat as of Jan. 1, the nation's agriculture agency said. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) announced its decision in a letter to stakeholders Friday.
The agency issued a proposed rule on Sept. 25, but there is no indication when a final rule regarding the agency's decision will be published. "APHIS can't speculate on such a time frame for the final rule," R. Andre Bell, public affairs specialist with APHIS said.
For over twenty years, field trials of GE wheat have been conducted under the agency's "notification" process, which requires much less oversight from the agency than the "permit" process that will now be required. "A permit application should be submitted to APHIS at least 60 days prior to the first proposed importation or interstate movement, or at least 120 days in advance of the proposed release into the environment. An initial review shall be completed by APHIS within 30 days of the receipt of the permit application," Bell said. The notification application process is considerably shorter, he said.
"With permits, APHIS can apply site-specific conditions, incorporating science, risk, wheat biology, and the site-specific agroecology of wheat. In particular, in dry land agriculture with no tillage, a longer volunteer monitoring period with specific reporting requirements can be established. And unlike notifications, permits' greater volunteer monitoring and reporting requirements help both the permittee and APHIS collect relevant data to employ and evaluate risk-based confinement conditions," the agency said.
The agency investigated two incidents in 2013 and 2014 where GE wheat developed by Monsanto was found where it did not belong. The 2014 incident in Montana discovered Monsanto's wheat at a site where the last authorization for a field trial had expired twelve years earlier, the agency said. The 2013 detection in Oregon was in an area where no trials had been authorized, which "had great potential to disrupt wheat markets globally. And in fact, some U.S. trading partners continue to apply additional risk mitigation measures to imports of U.S. wheat in response to that 2013 incident," according to the agency's document justifying its decision.
The more stringent permitting process will provide added protection that "GE wheat does not spread from the authorized area or persist in the environment" after field trials are concluded, the agency said. Because wheat seeds can be viable far longer than previously believed in dry soil, post-trial field monitoring beyond the usual two years may be needed.
The United States is the fourth largest wheat producing country and the largest wheat exporter, exporting twenty-nine million tons of wheat each year worth around $6.6 billion dollars, the agency said.
The potential damage to export trade in wheat is not the only concern. Organic farmers lost more than $6 million in the United States in 2014 due to GE contamination of their crops, according to data released by the USDA. "We know seed and pollen cannot be fully contained in an open-air environment, and that GE traits are found in organic and other non-GE seed, crops, and food, creating a burden and financial risk to those who find their products contaminated," the Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) said regarding the wheat permit action. OSA wrote a letter, signed by 150 farm organizations, food processors, millers, retail companies, bakeries and seed businesses asking the agency to require the permits if it would not halt the trials altogether.
Even organic dairy farmers support the stricter requirements for GE wheat trials. "We welcome the news that the USDA wants to improve oversight of GE wheat trials by requiring permits for these trials. This is a step in the right direction, since nearly all GE crop field trials are currently regulated through a notification system that relies on voluntary compliance by the developers of GE crops. These field trials go largely unmonitored by the USDA. In fact, by our estimate, only 13 percent of experimental GE wheat trials have been inspected since 2000. That leaves a huge gap in information and accountability," the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance said.
With at least 25 applications for GE wheat trials in the past 180 days alone, more oversight is increasingly relevant. "This move by APHIS will help assure trading partners that the U.S. regulatory system is vigilant with regard to experimental trials with GE crops. In this instance, it has been determined that there is sufficient scientific uncertainty regarding wheat seed dormancy to require a more cautious approach to field trial management, and that can best be achieved through the permitting process," Dr. Jeff Wolt, Professor of Agronomy & Toxicology, Biosafety Institute for Genetically Modified Agricultural Products, Iowa State University, said.
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