A process aimed at revising the regulation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has been launched by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). But critics fear the changes will not go far enough to protect the environment and public health.

The USDA is one of three US agencies responsible for regulating GMOs, along with the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. A draft environmental-impact statement released in July gives the first glimpses of how the USDA rules might change. It proposes to expand its authority from plants that might endanger other plants to “the full range of potential agricultural and environmental risks posed by these organisms, including risks to public health”.

The agency is also suggesting a tiered programme, with different regulations for different levels of risk, and special rules for organisms that produce compounds used in industry or pharmaceutical products. Other proposals include allowing regulation of a crop that has previously been officially “deregulated” and creating a new category for permitted “low level presence” of GMOs in food and seed crops.

Karen Perry Stillerman, a senior analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, is underwhelmed. “We would like to see a ban on growing pharmaceutical and industrial compounds in food crops outdoors,” she says.

“This is the kind of feedback we are trying to get,” says USDA spokeswoman Rachel Iadicicco. Public comment will be collected until 11 September; then the USDA will probably write a proposed rule that would have its own public comment period. Only then will the final rule be published. “It is a lengthy process,” says Iadicicco.