USDA limits review requirements of some biotech farm products

Tests of potato genetic material, loaded onto an agarose gel, show the presence of an experimental gene. (Ken Hackman photo courtesy ARS/USDA)

Chicago | Reuters — The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced on Thursday a rule that will simplify or waive agency reviews of certain biotech farm products, including plants and seeds that have been genetically modified or engineered.

As a result, some products could be sold to farmers without a USDA review — a move that comes despite concerns by consumer groups over biotech crops.

The final rule is the first major overhaul of USDA’s regulations over biotech plants, seeds and microbes since 1987, the agency said. Previously, USDA’s review system focused on genetically modified organisms, where a gene is added from another organism.

Existing regulations have not kept up with emerging technologies such as plant gene editing, which works like the find-and-replace function on a word processor: It finds a gene and then makes changes by amending or deleting it.

Scientists can edit genomes more precisely and rapidly, and altered agricultural products could get to market more quickly and cheaply, say biotech advocates.

If a company uses biotech to create a product that has traits that could have been achieved through traditional plant breeding, it would no longer have to go through a pre-market review through USDA, the agency said.

Such products typically require USDA to conduct a risk assessment of whether they can cause or spread plant diseases, among other vetting. Some of those products also are reviewed or regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, which has oversight over food safety, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“If it’s a GMO, that’s basically what they’ve been looking at over and over again for the past 20 years, they’re saying they don’t need to look at new examples,” said Clint Nesbitt, senior director of science and regulatory affairs with Biotechnology Innovation Organization, an industry group that represents companies such as Bayer.

“If what you’ve done with gene editing could have been done with plant breeding, you’re good to go,” Nesbitt said.

The change, first proposed during the Obama administration, comes after U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order last summer directing federal agencies to streamline the review process for agricultural biotechnology including genetically modified livestock and seeds.

Consumers have pushed for years for greater transparency over what is in their food, fighting for GMO labeling on consumer products against pushback from farmers, biotech firms and food companies that argue such genetically engineered ingredients are safe.

Genetically modified crops were a sticking point between the United States and China during their trade war. Beijing took years to approve new strains of those crops, which U.S. companies and farmers have complained stalls trade by restricting the sales of new products.

— P.J. Huffstutter reports on agriculture and agribusiness for Reuters from Chicago; additional reporting by Tom Polansek in Chicago.

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