Senate tackles ag biotechSenate tackles ag biotech
October 23, 2015
FOR the first time in 10 years, the Senate Agriculture Committee held a hearing on agricultural biotechnology, with testimony and expertise from top agency officials on the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as well as from members about what needs to be included in a viable GMO labeling option.
The House, on the other hand, has been busy evaluating biotechnology advances in agriculture and has held three previous hearings on the topic over the past year featuring various stakeholders and government officials.
Earlier this year, the House passed legislation to create a uniform, national, voluntary food labeling standard for GMOs as well as to have the U.S. Department of Agriculture oversee a certified GMO-free label, similar to its organic certification.
Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) promised to work with fellow senators to find a bipartisan solution that provides consumers with information they seek about food production while not stigmatizing biotechnology and eliminating a patchwork of state regulations.
Proposals to mandate GMO labeling at the state level are filled with loopholes and exemptions, supporters of a national solution say.
For example, under Vermont's GMO labeling law, vegetable soup would be labeled "genetically engineered," while vegetable beef soup would be exempt because it contains meat, which isn't covered under the law (Infographic).
As states develop and implement individual labeling laws, companies will be forced to create multiple supply chains, warehousing and delivery mechanisms to comply with each.
Because of this, grocery costs for families could increase by as much as $500 per year, according to a Cornell University study.
During the Senate hearing, top officials from the Food & Drug Administration, USDA's Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and Environmental Protection Agency confirmed multiple times the safety of all of the 117 approved biotech crops in the marketplace today as well as the regulatory review process through which all new products must go.
"We have great confidence in the safety of (biotech) crops that have been approved under the U.S. regulatory system," APHIS associate administrator Michael Gregoire testified.
William Jordan, deputy director of the EPA Office of Pesticide Programs, said EPA relies on the best available science, extensive data and independent experts when reviewing the environmental safety of biotech traits.
Dr. Susan Mayne, director of the FDA Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition, testified: "We are confident that foods from genetically engineered sources in the U.S. marketplace today are as safe as their conventional counterparts."
Nearly 30 years ago, the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy established the "Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology."
In a memo this summer, the President directed USDA, EPA and FDA to update the framework to reflect the latest research and science on biotechnology as well as to help instill additional confidence in the safety and soundness of the use of these technologies.
At the Senate hearing, the government officials were asked about their progress on updating the framework.
Gregoire said the overall goal is to make the system clearer and more transparent for developers and the public alike.
Gregoire said since March 2012, APHIS has reduced the time needed to review new petitions from three to five years to just over 18 months and believes that can be reduced even further to 15 months.
The coordinated framework will continue to allow the agencies to update existing regulations and better position for new technologies in the future.
"We've got many years of experience and can apply lessons learned over the many years of regulation and can also account for new science and technology," Gregoire said.
Mayne said the agencies are committed to updating the coordinated framework with an eye towards long-term strategies and incorporating insights from everyone ranging from national academies to the public.
"The goal through this process is to provide clarity to the regulatory process and encourage innovation while we're mitigating risk," she said.
Jordan noted that the coordinated framework offers an opportunity to revisit the agencies' responsibilities in communicating with the public about the processes and final safety assessments that are conducted on each new product.
On Oct. 30, the agencies are holding the first of three public meetings to involve the public in the modernization process, where each agency will work with its stakeholders to gain different perspectives.
Gregoire said although the agencies are in the early phases of pulling together the information, they hope to have an updated version of the coordinated framework available for public comment early next year.
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