WASHINGTON (CN) – After rogue genetically engineered wheat plants found in two states caused market fluctuations and lawsuits, the federal regulating agency proposed a change to its oversight regulations. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is requesting comments on a Friday proposal to require permits for field testing of genetically engineered (GE) wheat instead of the current notification system.
GE plants are considered to be “regulated” because they may pose a risk as a plant pest. Under the current system, planting these genetically manipulated organisms may be authorized under agency notification if they are not mixed with non-regulated plants and are released into the environment in such a way that they or any offspring will not persist in the environment.
The notification system is an “expedited procedure that is less rigorous than permitting,” according to a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report that was compiled after the separate discoveries of GE wheat in Oregon and Montana. “Permits impose restrictions on movement and planting to prevent escape of plant material that may pose a pest risk. Sponsors follow APHIS guidance on testing and movements to ensure that the plant will not damage agriculture, human health, or the environment,” the report said.
After the 2013 discovery of GE wheat in an Oregon field and the 2014 discovery of GE wheat in a research facility in Montana, Japan, the largest buyer of U.S. wheat, and South Korea temporarily suspended new orders of U.S. wheat grown in Oregon and the Pacific Northwest. Those two countries, along with the European Union, have zero-tolerance policies regarding unapproved GE varieties. Oregon exports nearly 90 percent of its wheat crop.
Monsanto, the company that developed the strains found in both incidents, “agreed to pay $250,000 to several wheat growers’ associations. Monsanto also will pay $2.1 million into a settlement fund for soft white wheat farmers in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, and will reimburse plaintiffs’ attorneys for costs associated with the litigation,” the CRS report noted. Monsanto’s GE wheat is modified to resist applications of the herbicide glyphosate, which Monsanto markets as Roundup,
APHIS conducted an extensive investigation into the Oregon incident that generated a report that is almost 13,000 pages long. The agency found that it was an “isolated occurrence,” but was unable to determine how the GE wheat got into that field. The investigation into the Montana incident is apparently still ongoing, but APHIS maintains that none of the suspect wheat has been allowed to enter commercial channels.
The Oregon and Montana incidents are not unique blots on APHIS’ track record. In 2001, GE corn was found in taco shells made by Kraft Foods, in 2006 GE rice was reported in commercial rice samples, and an unapproved GE cotton variety that produces its own pesticide was found in a crop of approved GE cotton in 2008, for example.
“Such incidents of regulatory noncompliance continue to raise concerns about the limitations of APHIS’ biotechnology regulatory structure. Critics of GE crops have pointed to these incidents as evidence of APHIS’ lax oversight and inadequate field trial protocols,” the CRS report said.
The rising tide of public sentiment against GE food crops has engendered a proliferation of campaigns against genetic tinkering with our food supply, although the U.S. does not currently have the same zero-policy bans found in other countries.
“Americans have the right to know if their food is genetically engineered, just like the people of 64 other countries. Despite their claims, Monsanto and GMA [Grocery Manufacturers Association] have no ‘right’ to keep our families in the dark about the same information they already provide around the world,” George Kimbrell, senior attorney the Center for Food Safety (CFS), a national environmental advocacy organization, said.
The CFS recently filed a lawsuit in support of Vermont’s GE labeling law representing a broad coalition of scientists, farming organizations and environmental groups.
“Genetic engineering is fundamentally different than traditional plant breeding, and it is misleading for the biotech industry to claim otherwise,” Ramon J. Seidler, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Genetically Engineered Organism Biosafety Program said in the CFS press release regarding the lawsuit. “It is a novel technology with no history of safe use, and there is no scientific consensus on the safety of GE foods. There is substantial evidence of the environmental degradation that GE crop production causes, particularly when it comes to dramatic increases in pesticide use, since the vast majority of GE crops are engineered to be resistant to or produce pesticides.”
Comments on the permitting proposal are due Oct. 26.
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