USDA Proposes More Oversight of GE Wheat: Is it Enough?

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Wheat fields in Northern California. Photo credit: Organic Seed Alliance

UPDATE 12/11/15: The USDA officially announced that it will require permits for all future GE wheat field trials.

Thanks to the organizations and businesses that signed our comments calling for these permits and strong containment conditions.

Background:

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is proposing a policy change that should provide more oversight of genetically engineered (GE) wheat planted in experimental field trials, though major improvements to regulations and oversight are still desperately needed.

The amount of acreage growing experimental varieties of GE crops is a long-standing concern of the organic community. Thousands of acres of experimental crops are planted each year.

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 USDA released data this month on some of these costs, finding what we already knew: that contamination is costing organic farmers millions of dollars. Contamination events sometimes involve experimental crops, as we saw with GE rice in 2006 and with GE wheat in 2013 and 2014, to name just two examples.

Following the 2013 discovery of unapproved GE wheat, OSA called on the USDA to move quickly to improve oversight of experimental field trials. We wrote a letter calling for a moratorium on GE wheat field trials, enforceable standards for confining all GE crops, and active monitoring and testing to ensure compliance. More than 150 farm organizations, food processors, millers, retail companies, bakeries, and seed businesses signed this letter to US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. OSA and a number of wheat growers and seed industry stakeholders then met with the Secretary to discuss our concerns and recommendations.

Our recommendations were many. If the agency wasn’t going to halt GE wheat trials, we asked that it at least choose the low-hanging fruit option of regulating these trials under its permit system versus the much weaker and ubiquitously used notification process, where GE crop developers simply notify the agency of their activities.

At the time the USDA said no to even the permit approach. But last week the agency said it’s changed its mind and that requiring permits for all GE wheat trials is the right thing to do.

This is a step in the right direction. Nearly all field trials are currently regulated through a notification system that relies on voluntary compliance by the developers of GE crops. Through the permit system, USDA requires more detailed information about the experimental crops from applicants, and permitted crops are evaluated and monitored more closely.

The USDA also told OSA that all GE wheat trials now receive inspections to ensure GE crop developers are using containment practices to avoid more contamination events.

You’re probably thinking: Don’t they monitor these experiments anyway?

Not always. In fact, by our estimate, approximately 13% of experimental GE wheat trials have been inspected since 2000. Furthermore, the USDA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) published a new audit report last month that reviewed the agency’s policies and processes governing oversight of GE field trials. The OIG found ongoing severe shortcomings with the agency’s monitoring and tracking of field tests. The report also pointed to recommendations published in a 2005 OIG audit on the same topic that remain unaddressed.

In particular, OIG found that USDA “still does not have adequate controls in place to account for and sufficiently monitor all field trial locations.” It concluded: “As a result, at any given time, [USDA] is not aware of the status of all planted field trial locations, and not all planted locations are included in the universe of sites to be selected for inspection. Consequently, inadvertent releases of GE organisms are at risk of occurring.”

A dramatic overhaul of the agency’s regulations governing GE crops is needed, as we wrote about here. Requiring permits for GE wheat field trials alone doesn’t provide assurances that contamination events won’t surface again. The USDA still supports the development of GE wheat — even though international and domestic markets continue to reject it — and has allowed nearly 50 new GE wheat trials since the Oregon contamination event.

Still, this proposal acknowledges that the notification system governing the vast majority of GE crop field trials is inadequate. And the USDA’s commitment to more oversight of GE wheat trials is welcomed news.

As the USDA explores changes to its regulations governing GE crops, oversight of experimental trials must be a major focus of improvements. This point was emphasized in the 2005 and 2015 OIG audit reports as well.

The comment period for the USDA’s proposal to require permits for GE wheat field trials closed on October 26, 2015. OSA collected signatures from more than 60 businesses and organizations in support of requiring permits with strong containment conditions. On December 11, 2015, USDA announced that it will move forward with requiring permits for GE wheat trials.

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