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USDA Waives Regulatory Authority for GE Crops

Insights + Opinion

Lauren Ketcham

This summer, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) officials announced their decision not to regulate a Roundup Ready strain of Kentucky bluegrass, genetically engineered (GE) to withstand the herbicide glyphosate, commonly sold as Roundup. The decision allows Scotts Miracle Gro, the developer of the grass, to market the product without any review of how it might affect the environment.

The announcement and documents released by the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) signal a significant change in how the USDA is likely to address new GE crops in the future.

Previously, the USDA had regulated GE crops using the Plant Pest Act, which gives the agency the power to restrict the introduction of organisms that might harm plants. GE crops technically qualified as "plant pests" because natural plant pathogen promoters and plant pest substances are used in the genetic modification process.

By qualifying as plant pests, the USDA was required by the National Environmental Policy Act to assess the environmental impacts of GE crops and by the Endangered Species Act to gauge potential impact on endangered species and habitat. In recent years, the Center for Food Safety and other organizations have successfully sued the agency for failing to conduct these assessments before removing crops from the plant pest list.

In 2000, Congress passed the Plant Protection Act, which broadened the Plant Pest Act to include a “noxious weed” provision, giving the USDA the authority to regulate any GE crop with the potential to spread or become hard-to-control.

As biotechnology companies have begun using non-pest material to develop GE crops, the plant pest provision has become a less useful tool for the regulation of GE technology. Scotts Miracle Gro’s GE bluegrass, for example, was modified using no plant pest components, allowing the company to successfully argue that their product should not be regulated as a plant pest.

The USDA eliminated its other tool for regulating GE bluegrass—the noxious weed provision—when they released a statement this summer declaring that the weed risks posed by GE and conventional bluegrass are “essentially the same.” That is, the USDA maintains that GE bluegrass poses no greater risk for spreading uncontrollably than conventional grass, despite being engineered to withstand herbicide applications.

By determining that the GE bluegrass was neither a plant pest nor a noxious weed, the USDA is under no obligation to perform environmental impact or endangered species analyses, allowing the grass to enter the market with virtually no independent review.

Given that Kentucky bluegrass is expected to become available for use on home lawns throughout the country, we can anticipate a corresponding increase in the use of Roundup. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, has been linked to non-Hodgkin lymphoma, endocrine disruption, multiple myoeloma, DNA damage, immune suppression, and miscarriage.

Even more concerning, the USDA’s bluegrass decision signals a hands-off approach to regulating GE technology which will make it even easier for unlabeled GE ingredients to become part of our food supply. Moreover, by calling GE and non-GE crops “essentially the same,” it is unclear if any GE crop will now qualify as a noxious weed, giving environmental and consumer advocates fewer options for challenging GE products in court.

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