USDA proposes overhaul of biotech plant regulations

By Joan Conrow

June 7, 2019

Many new genetically engineered crops would be exempt from federal scrutiny under the US Department of Agriculture’s proposed revision of the nation’s biotechnology regulations.

“This proposed rule, which would mark the first comprehensive revision of the regulations since they were established in 1987, would provide a clear, predictable, and efficient regulatory pathway for innovators, facilitating the development of new and novel genetically engineered organisms that are unlikely to pose plant pest risks,” according to the document published in the federal register.

Plants with traits that are similar to those that could be produced through traditional breeding would be exempt from regulation, under the proposal. Additionally, those developing new crop varieties would be allowed to self-determine whether their products are exempt from regulation.

The agency issued a press release saying its proposal was guided by the principles of sustainable, ecological, consistent, uniform, responsible and efficient, creating the acronym SECURE. “The SECURE rule will modernize the Department’s biotechnology regulations with a balanced approach that continues to protect plant health while allowing agricultural innovation to thrive,” according to the release.

“As the name SECURE implies, this proposed rule incorporates the need for efficient and sustainable agricultural production to help feed and clothe the world combined with responsible and predictable regulatory oversight to safeguard America’s ecology and plant health,” Greg Ibach, USDA under-secretary for marketing and regulatory programs, said in a statement.

“SECURE would enable APHIS [Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service] to evaluate GE organisms for plant pest risk with greater precision than the current rule allows, ensuring oversight and risk are based on the best available science,” Ibach continued.  “This common sense approach will ultimately give farmers more choices in the field and consumers more choices at the grocery store.”

The proposed revision would shave an estimated $3.6 million from the already hefty price tag of developing new genetically engineered crops — a savings that would drop to just $730,000 for crops that are now being reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration or Environmental Protection Agency, as well as the USDA.

The USDA is accepting public comments on the proposal through Aug. 5. The agency also plans to publish a draft programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).