Agency rushes to redraw plant biotech rules

The rules for release and transport of genetically engineered (GE) plants are being overhauled for the first time since 1987. Early in October, officials at the US Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) proposed new regulations under the Plant Protection Act of 2000.

Agency officials say the proposed changes would “improve and clarify” procedures that lead APHIS to “approve” GE plants by granting them “nonregulated status.” The current system allows companies or universities developing certain exempted classes of GE plants to notify USDA rather than apply for permits. Under the new rules, submission practices would be more uniform, though possibly more burdensome.

APHIS is receiving public comments until November 18. But critics complain that the proposals, which met little public fanfare, leave little time to respond. The debate about these proposals is “too important” to disenfranchise American farmers from it, says Bill Wenzel, director of the Farmer-to-Farmer Campaign on Genetic Engineering, based in Madison, Wisconsin, and a member of a broader national coalition of farm groups. Noting that many US farmers are busy “harvesting crops,” he urged APHIS to extend the comment period to 120 days.

Provisions allowing crops that produce pharmaceuticals to be grown in fields are under fire, as they might mingle with foods that are sold to consumers. Meanwhile, other critics say that the proposals do not go far enough, as they fail to reduce regulatory burdens. Drew Kershen of the University of Oklahoma Law School in Norman, Oklahoma, calls on APHIS (and other federal agencies) to “abandon its unjustified and discriminatory bias against agricultural biotechnology” and to regulate such crops “in a manner no different than...crops from any other breeding method.”

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Fox, J. Agency rushes to redraw plant biotech rules. Nat Biotechnol 26, 1206 (2008).

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