Trump orders federal agencies to ‘streamline’ GMO regulations

The three federal agencies responsible for regulating genetically modified plants -- the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency -- were instructed by President Donald Trump on Tuesday to streamline their regulatory processes. Photo by Lance Cheung/U.S. Department of Agriculture

EVANSVILLE, Ind., June 13 (UPI) — President Donald Trump has ordered federal agencies to streamline their “agricultural biotechnology regulatory process” to make it easier for companies to develop and market genetically modified foods.

The instructions came in an executive order signed by the president Tuesday evening.

“The current regulatory process is a regulatory maze that can take over a decade to navigate, delaying innovations that can bring safe resilient crops to the market,” the White House said in a statement. “This executive order will help eliminate delays, reduce developer costs and provide greater certainty about the review process.”

Industry groups were quick to applaud the order, saying it recognized the “important role” genetic engineering will play in solving future food shortages brought on by overpopulation and climate change.

We applaud “the Trump administration for taking this important step forward to ensure government policy does not hinder 21st-century biotechnology from addressing the many global challenges — from a looming food crisis to climate change-facing society today,” the Biotechnology Innovation Organization’s President and CEO Jim Greenwood said in a statement.

The American Seed Trade Association echoed that sentiment.

“Through evolving plant breeding methods, like gene editing, scientists are able to create new varieties in years, instead of decades,” Andy LaVigne, the association’s president and CEO, said in a statement. “To fully realize the potential of these innovations, plant breeders need clarity and consistency around plant breeding policy.”

The executive order comes less than a week after the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced plans to update its GMO regulations in a way that greatly reduces the number of genetically engineered plants that would be subject to USDA review. The agency is accepting comments on that proposal.

The USDA is one of three agencies that oversees genetically engineered plants and animals. The others are the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.

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The agencies’ various regulations were written mostly in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when genetic engineering was just taking off. Today, advances in the science are making those laws more obsolete — and leaving some new genetically modified organisms outside the scope of government regulation entirely.

“Depending on its traits, a crop can have three, two, one or zero reviews,” said Greg Jaffe, the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s biotechnology project director.

Because of this, GMO regulations need to be updated, Jaffe said. But he cautioned that those updates should not be used to deregulate the industry.

“We should not wholesale exclude all genetically modified organisms from federal regulation,” Jaffe said.

The three agencies should continue to test such plants for safety, he said. They should also continue to guard against environmental impacts, said Jaydee Hanson, the policy director at the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C.

One of the ways government does this is “making sure GMO stuff does not contaminate non-GMO stuff,” Hanson said.

Even under current federal regulations, this still happens, Hanson said. Just last week, the USDA announced it had found unapproved genetically modified wheat growing wild in Washington state.

Without regulations, it’s likely such instances will become more common — and more difficult to detect, Hanson said.

“To the extent that this executive order pushes agencies to make sure they streamline their policies for transparency and efficiency, we support that,” Jaffe said. “But if the purpose of the executive order is to deregulate, that is problematic. We’ll have to see.”

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