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July 11, 2011 

USDA Bluegrass Decisions Signal Major Weakening of Genetic Engineering Regulations

Agency Makes Announcement Late Friday before Holiday Weekend to Avoid Scrutiny

Late Friday afternoon, July 1, just before the long July 4th holiday weekend, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) quietly issued a press release announcing that it had finalized two decisions on regulating genetically engineered grass.

A closer look, however, discovered that they were a much bigger deal.

These two decisions, announced when the agency apparently assumed no one was paying attention, could drastically reduce the number genetically engineered (GE) plants subject to regulatory oversight, according to Margaret Mellon, director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

“This is potentially the most serious change in U.S. policy on GE plants in years,” she said. “Taken together, these decisions suggest that in the future, most GE organisms will be given a free regulatory pass.”

The USDA made these decisions in response to inquiries about Kentucky bluegrass engineered to resist the herbicide glyphosate, better known by Monsanto’s trade name Roundup, by the grass’ manufacturer, Scotts Miracle-Gro, and the Center for Food Safety, a public interest group.

Specifically, the USDA determined that it will not regulate GE bluegrass either as a “plant pest” or a “noxious weed,” the two legal categories under which the agency has the authority to regulate most GE plants since they were first developed in the 1980s. The fact that most GE plants initially included bits of genes from plant pests conveniently allowed the USDA to regulate them under then-existing law.

Fast forward to today. Biotech companies are developing GE plants that do not include materials or methods involving plant pests. Scotts Miracle-Gro Kentucky bluegrass is one example. Since it does not contain any bits of genetic material from a known plant pest, the USDA ruled it would not consider the bluegrass to be a potential plant pest under the law. In other words, the USDA decided not to regulate it.

Scientifically, the presence or absence of genetic material from plant pests has little to do with the overall risk posed by a GE plant to either public health or the environment, said Mellon. But legally, a plant’s potential to become a plant pest is what has enabled the USDA to regulate it.

“Unless a plant can be considered to have some potential to become a plant pest, it can escape regulation entirely,” she said. “The first generation of GE plants typically contained genetic material from plant pests, assuring that they would be deemed plant pests and reviewed by the USDA, but newer GE crops, like Scotts Miracle-Gro Kentucky bluegrass, may not. And like the bluegrass, they will be able to completely avoid USDA oversight.”

The USDA’s second decision denied a petition from the Center for Food Safety asking that the agency consider the GE Kentucky bluegrass to be a noxious weed. In its response, the agency defined noxious weed as only the most destructive ones, such as giant salvinia, hydrilla and mile-a-minute vine, which are very expensive to control. By setting the bar that high, Kentucky bluegrass does not meet the definition, and therefore the agency declined to regulate it.

The GE Kentucky bluegrass decision signals that the regulations the USDA have been working on for the last 11 years under the Plant Protection Act of 2000 will exclude virtually all GE plants from a “noxious weed” designation, even though some could cause substantial environmental damage. While the agency continues its work on the regulations, it could allow some GE plant producers to opt out of regulatory oversight.

The agency’s July 1 decision to use the same definition of a noxious weed for both GE plants and traditional noxious weeds is inappropriate, said Mellon. Traditional noxious weeds, few of which were deliberately released into the environment, can pose a major threat to the U.S. economy, infrastructure and agriculture. For example, hydrilla, an aquatic plant, clogs channels and blocks navigation. That’s why designating a plant a traditional noxious weed often incurs significant costs for cleanup and control.

One rationale the USDA uses for excluding GE crops from the noxious weed category is that it would be costly, Mellon explained. Given the fact that new GE plants are not yet in the environment, however, the agency’s rationale is nonsensical: There would be no cost for cleanup or control. The designation would simply serve as a legal tool allowing the USDA to evaluate a plant’s risks, and the agency only would regulate plants that pose risks. By applying the very high standard of damage applied to currently designated noxious weeds to GE plants, she said, the USDA is dramatically constricting the number of plants it will regulate.

Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist in UCS’s Food and Environment Program, pointed out that “some GE plants could cause extensive damage without falling under the USDA’s noxious weed definition. Many important crops such as wheat and rice are related to weeds that already cause major crop damage. Genes transferred from GE plants to related weeds through pollination could make things a lot worse, but the GE plants still may not meet the USDA’s overly restrictive noxious weed standard.

“Many of the GE trees and grasses in the pipeline are likely to spread far and wide in the environment,” he added. “The potential for harm will be greatly increased if most of those plants are not regulated. If the USDA is serious about protecting public health and the environment, it would reverse these ill-advised decisions and define noxious weeds in a way that ensures that it regulates all GE plants. Better yet, Congress should pass legislation specifically regulating GE plants and organisms and stop trying to regulate them under inappropriate laws.”

 

The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with citizens across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.

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