"Listen to the science" was an oft-heard riposte in political debates about how the government should respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. While Donald Trump's administration failed on that front, it did "listen to the science" last May, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) streamlined some of its outdated and scientifically unwarranted regulations of modern biotech crops. Will President Joe Biden stay the course?
This is not a niche issue. Since the 1980s, biotech crop varieties have been engineered with new genetic traits that enable them to resist diseases, insect pests, and herbicides. Today, 94 percent of all soybeans, 83 percent of corn, and 95 percent of sugar beets grown in the U.S. are biotech varieties.
At the dawn of genetic engineering, the USDA contorted its regulations to assert a right to review new biotech crops before they could be offered to farmers. For 30 years, the department individually evaluated each new bioengineered (B.E.) crop variety, even though the department had determined numerous times that the same genetic traits in previously approved varieties were safe for consumers and the environment.
In May 2020, the USDA issued its final Sustainable, Ecological, Consistent, Uniform, Responsible, Efficient (SECURE) rule. Under SECURE, an engineered crop variety is exempt from regulation if it contains only minor genetic changes of the sort that would endow a plant with a trait that could have been achieved through traditional breeding. Previously, plant breeders had to ask USDA regulators to evaluate the risk of every new biotech crop they sought to commercialize. Now the department exempts new varieties to which plant breeders have simply added genes that achieve the same biochemical result (e.g., insect resistance) that has already been deemed safe.
Under the new rules, plant breeders are no longer required to submit their products to the USDA to determine whether they qualify for an exemption. As the preamble to the rule notes, this change reduces "the regulatory burden for developers of organisms that are unlikely to pose plant pest risks" and "provides a clear, predictable, and efficient regulatory pathway for innovators" to develop improved biotech plants. Should developers have a question about whether their crop varieties are exempt from the regulation, they can still contact the department for a consultation.
Anti-biotech groups immediately decried the modernized rules. "Under the newly released regulations, the overwhelming majority of genetically engineered (GE) plant trials would not have to be reported to USDA, or have their risks analyzed before being allowed to go to market," declared a press release from the Center for Food Safety. "The USDA's shameful decision to gut essential safety regulations for genetically engineered organisms puts more power in the hands of corporate agribusiness and removes all transparency," asserted Friends of the Earth spokesperson Dana Perls.
What particularly upsets the activists is that many newly exempt varieties will not be subject to National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standards (NBFDS) requirements. As the USDA noted in 2018, when it issued the labeling regulations, "the NBFDS is not expected to have any benefits to human health or the environment….Nothing in the disclosure requirements set out in this final rule conveys information about the health, safety, or environmental attributes of B.E. food as compared to non-B.E. counterparts." But the activists know that some consumers mistakenly view those labels as warnings and thus tend to avoid foods made using ingredients from modern biotech crops.
Will the Biden administration listen to the science regarding biotech crops? One possibly good omen is the nomination of biotech-friendly Obama administration Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to his former post.
"While public skepticism around the safety of GMOs is significant," Vilsack noted in a 2017 op-ed for The Hill, "the overwhelming evidence demonstrates that these crops have not been linked to a single health risk in the more than two decades they've been in our marketplace." He added that "embracing innovative farming technologies and practices like seed improvement through genetic modification puts us on the path toward a more food-secure and environmentally stable future."