Greater vigilance needed for GE crops
Government agencies overseeing the regulation of genetically engineered (GE) crops should do more to improve co-ordination and monitoring, the investigation concluded, as the unauthorized mixing of some GE crops with non-GE crops has caused controversy, financial harm and product recalls.
The global value of GE seeds sold in 2007 was estimated at $6.9bn and about 70 percent of processed foods sold in the US contain ingredients and oils from GE crops.
The GAO said that if agencies do not act to restrict the growth or use of a GE crop, it can enter into the food supply and mix with conventional (non-GE) varieties without being monitored, traced, or labeled.
So far, there have been six documented unauthorized releases of GE crops into the food and feed supply, or into crops meant for the food or feed supply, and additional releases into the environment.
But the actual number of unauthorized releases is unknown and the ease with which genetic material from crops can be spread makes future releases likely.
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulate GE crops and maintain that there is no evidence the unauthorized releases have adversely affected human or animal health or the environment.
However, they have resulted in food recalls or lost trade opportunities. For example, in August 2006, the USDA announced that trace amounts of a regulated variety of GE rice had been commingled with supplies of conventional rice. This led several trading partners to refuse US rice exports.
The GAO looked at unauthorized releases of GE crops, coordination among the three agencies, and additional actions they have proposed to improve oversight.
It said: “USDA, EPA, and FDA routinely coordinate their oversight and regulation of GE crops in many respects, but could improve their efforts.
“Specifically, USDA and FDA do not have a formal method for sharing information that could enhance FDA’s voluntary early food safety review for certain GE crops in the field trial stage and support USDA’s oversight.
“Also, the three agencies do not have a coordinated program for monitoring the use of marketed GE crops to determine whether the spread of genetic traits is causing undesirable effects on the environment, non-GE segments of agriculture, or food safety.”
It recommends that the USDA and FDA develop an agreement to share information on GE crops with traits that, if released into the food or feed supply, could cause health concerns;
And the USDA, EPA, and FDA should develop a risk-based strategy for monitoring the widespread use of marketed GE crops.
Gregory Jaffe, biotechnology director for The Center for Science in the Public Interest, said: “The incoming Obama Administration should implement all of the GAO recommendations.”
The US accounts for about 50 percent of GE crops planted globally and GE varieties account for about 80 percent of corn and 92 percent of the soybeans planted in the US.