At the request of Congress, the FDA’s and USDA’s review process for genetically engineered products is finally coming under scrutiny by the GAO.
In 2013, Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) wrote to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and asked them to look into the review system being used to regulate genetically modified crops-specifically, “to ensure that [it] fully reflects current science.” This week, the GAO agreed to begin a review of how the USDA and FDA look at the long-term safety of genetically engineered crops both in the environment and in the food supply.
Sen. Tester notes that in 1984, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy established a Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology. They did so in an attempt to balance health and safety regulations with enough regulatory flexibility to avoid impeding growth and innovation in the biotech industry. Little has changed in this framework in the past thirty years, even though GMO science has evolved dramatically and proliferated greatly.
The current scientific approval process for GMO crops is inadequate. First, there is no legislation that is specific to GMOs. The Plant Pest Act gives USDA the power to restrict the introduction of organisms that might harm plants. In something of a stretch, USDA reasons that GMO crops qualify as “plant pests” because historically, the DNA from natural plant pathogens and/or microbial material were used in the genetic engineering of various plants. The Plant Pest Act also gives USDA the authority to regulate noxious weeds, and therefore any engineered crop that can become a noxious, hard-to-control weed can be regulated.
Likewise, the FDA is also lacking in authority over GMOs. The FDA regulates GM crops via a voluntary consultation process with the biotech industry, and GM animals under the New Animal Drug provisions. The GM salmon (which we dubbed “Frankenfish“) is undergoing this process now, and if the FDA approves it, it could open the floodgates to a whole bunch of other GM animals that have already been developed but are waiting in the wings for approval.
As you can see, there is no systemic process to comprehensively study human and health effects of GMO crops, and there is a very real potential for some crops to slip through the cracks. Several times both the USDA and the EPA have declared they have no authority over GMOs-even in what seem to be clear-cut cases where the GMO crop has the potential to become an invasive or harmful plant. The Kentucky Bluegrass controversy in 2011 shows that environmental danger means very little to the USDA, since they de-regulated a GMO because it didn’t technically use DNA from an invasive species and the agency didn’t believe it would “cause significant impact enough to warrant regulation at the federal level.”