The US Department of Agriculture has proposed a policy change that should provide more oversight of genetically engineered wheat planted in experimental field trials.

Although this policy change is a step in the right direction, major improvements to regulations and oversight are still desperately needed.

Alphabet Soup...what do all those letters mean?
GE: Genetically engineered by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes.
GMO: Genetically modified organism, whether by natural causes or human manipulation.
OSA: Organic Seed Alliance, based in Port Townsend, Washington, USA
USDA: United States Department of Agriculture

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 in the U.S. 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.

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Source of Data: Food and Water Watch Survey: Organic Farmers Pay the Price for GMO Contamination

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 U.S. 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 in September 2015 the agency said it had changed its mind and that requiring permits for all GE wheat trials is the right thing to do, opening a public comment process on this new proposal.

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 (Organic Seed Alliance) 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 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.”Quote Here--Office of the Inspector General

A dramatic overhaul of the agency’s regulations governing GE crops is needed. 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 USDA’s comment period for its proposal to require permits for GE wheat field trials closed on October 26, 2015. Sixty organizations and businesses signed OSA’s comments to the USDA. These comments included recommendations for strengthening oversight of experimental wheat trials further. OSA still believes that GE wheat trials should not be allowed in light of ongoing gaps in regulation and oversight, in addition to the fact that the Montana GE wheat contamination investigation is still underway. Barring a ban on these trials, permit conditions must include mandatory and proven contamination prevention measures, proof of financial responsibility for testing and losses that result from potential contamination events, among other requirements.

The USDA announced in December that it is formally implementing the permit requirement for new GE wheat experimental trials moving forward. To receive updates on this and other seed policy topics, sign up here for OSA’s quarterly newsletter.