In efforts to speed products to market, major agricultural biotech companies have found ways to avoid the sometimes lengthy USDA approval process for genetically modified organisms by using methods the USDA doesn’t yet regulate.
While the USDA has approved essentially all of the GMO foods and crops submitted to the agency, the review process can take several years before a product can be ready for commercial use.
To get around that, some biotech companies are “using techniques that either are outside the jurisdiction of the Agriculture Department or use new methods — like ‘genome editing’ — that were not envisioned when the regulations were created,” the New York Times reports.
The Times notes that genetically engineered crops such as “a new herbicide-resistant canola, a corn that would create less pollution from livestock waste, switch grass tailored for biofuel production, and even an ornamental plant that glows in the dark,” would not be regulated by the USDA under the loopholes.
One of the newer ways biotech companies are avoiding the USDA approval process, is by avoiding components that come from plant pests, the Times explains. Scotts, which makes GMO grass seeds, is making its newer grasses with the foreign genetic material coming only “from other plants and is inserted with a gene gun rather than by the bacterium,” which is widely used in developing pest-resistant GMO crops.
“If you take genetic material from a plant and it’s not considered a pest, and you don’t use a transformation technology that would sort of violate the rules, there’s a bunch of stuff you can do that at least technically is unregulated,” Jim Hagedorn, Scotts chief executive, told analysts in December 2013, the Times reports. He said the company was close to ending its biotech program after a previous mishap with regulations, until it discovered that it could create “a stunning array of products that are not regulated.”
There’s another benefit for the multinational biotech companies in usurping the regulator process for genetically modified organisms: gaining access to international markets where GMOs are banned or tightly regulated like the European Union, Russia and China.
While these new technologies might technically fall outside of current regulatory definitions of genetic modification, critics say there are still too many risks to call these practices safe.
“They are using a technical loophole so that what are clearly genetically engineered crops and organisms are escaping regulation,” Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at Consumers Union told the Times. He said Scotts grass for example “can have all sorts of ecological impact and no one is required to look at it.”
And the USDA oversight could also “open opportunities for smaller companies and university breeders and for the modification of less common crops,” the Times explains. “Until now, in part because of the costs associated with regulation, crop biotechnology has been dominated by Monsanto and a handful of other big companies working mainly on widely grown crops like corn and soybeans.”
While giving smaller companies a competitive edge in the market may reduce the impact of the larger biotech companies like Monsanto, Dow and Syngenta, it’s still putting controversial products into the market, and with no regulations on labeling genetically modified organisms, a bigger and less regulated marketplace can only mean more confusion for customers.
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