In a move that many consider to be long overdue, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy announced that three federal agencies will be coordinating to revamp the decades-old policy towards genetically modified agriculture (GMO) in order to restore public confidence. The current system, called the Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology, involves a patchwork of procedures by the Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In the directive, the White House admits that, “The complexity of the array of regulations and guidance documents developed by the three Federal agencies can make it difficult for the public to understand how the safety of biotechnology products is evaluated.” The existing framework has been controversial since it was established in 1986, and has only been updated once, in 1992, despite the GMO industry’s rampant expansion since then. The White House announced that it will accept public input into the regulatory changes and the administration hopes to have the new framework in place within a year.
The intent of the change is to streamline the current system, in which “navigating the regulatory process for these products can be unduly challenging, especially for small companies.” Currently, the Department of Agriculture is responsible for ensuring that GMO products do not contain “plant pests,” or cause an environmental hazard, the EPA is responsible for approving any item with insect-killing pesticides, and the FDA decides if the GMO food is safe to eat. Many in the biotechnology and academic fields believe that the existing framework is too complex and expensive to undergo extensive research and some smaller food suppliers have difficulty bringing products to market because of it as well. A major goal of the regulatory review, according to a White House memo is to “prevent unnecessary barriers to future innovation and competitiveness.” Drastic change may not be immediate; however, as the first year of the changes will likely revolve around clarifying the products or areas that each department is responsible for, as opposed to making any rapid regulatory changes. According to the directive, the agencies will set up a joint task force to undergo the clarifying process as well as be responsible for keeping abreast on technological changes that could impact the regulation.
The changes are geared to restore public confidence in GMO food, and the U.S. food supply in general. Currently, about 90 percent of corn, soybean, and cotton crops have foreign genes inserted into their DNA in order to make them more resistant to insects and herbicides. Both the Environmental Working Group and the Biotechnology Industry Organization welcome the changes, citing the desperate need for reforms. Center for Science in the Public Interest biotechnology director, Greg Jaffe, applauds the measure as well, although writing, “The call to engage experts who can analyze the potential products from future biotechnologies is late in coming but necessary to ensuring food and environmental safety.” In a press release, however, the nonprofit encouraged the agencies to look beyond the approval or rejection of a single item, but to look at the bigger picture, such as whether or not overplanting of a GMO crop would cause excess release of herbicides to the surrounding environment for example. Calling for the FDA to have more comprehensive authority than its current role, Jaffe also states that if the review concludes that the FDA’s role cannot be changed, that the president should encourage Congress to pass legislation in order to do so.
Business Standard – Andrew Pollack
Center for Science and the Public Interest – Gregory Jaffe
NPR – Dan Charles
NYCity.com – Ruby Ortega