GAO: USDA needs oversight of GE crops

by Great Falls Tribune – Christopher Doering

WASHINGTON – The Agriculture Department needs to do more to improve oversight and understand the impact from the accidental mixing of genetically engineered crops with other plants, the Government Accountability Office has concluded.

The GAO, the independent investigative arm of Congress, said the USDA has limited data on the unintended mixing of genetically engineered crops with those that have not had their DNA altered by a human. The agency said this makes it difficult for the department to identify the extent and impact of the unintended co-mingling with organic and other crops.

The bipartisan agency found that while the USDA has limited data on the economic losses to organic farmers from the mixing with genetically engineered material, similar information does not exist for farmers using non-GE seeds that are identity-preserved. These special crops are produced with a specific use, such as human food, cosmetics or pharmaceuticals, and are grown on more acreage than organic crops.

“Without including farmers growing identity-preserved crops in addition to those growing organic crops in its survey efforts, USDA is missing key information on the potential economic impact of unintended mixing,” the GAO said in its report, released Thursday.

The GAO said the USDA has made some progress in response to a 2012 recommendation by an agricultural stakeholder group to fund or conduct research to study the extent of cross-contamination and the economic impact. One example, a 2014 organic survey, “was an important first step” but the data did not provide enough information, according to the GAO.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., a third-generation farmer who requested the GAO report, said the findings show there are policies in place that “have not kept up” with the rapid change of the technology.

“The dramatic increase in genetically engineered crops is changing everything, and this report shows we don’t have an adequate framework in place or fully understand the economic impacts on our producers,” Tester said.

Up to 80 percent of packaged foods contain ingredients that have been genetically modified, according to the food industry. Biotech crops are popular in agricultural states, where more than 90 percent of corn and soybeans come from the seeds.

A USDA spokesperson said the department welcomed the report and agreed with GAO’s recommendations.

“We are currently working to update our processes for biotechnology regulation to address the GAO recommendations,” the spokesperson said. “In recent years, USDA has taken several steps to improve its oversight of products produced with biotechnology.”

Among the changes, the USDA has improved its process for tracking, reviewing and analyzing field trial planning reports. It also has increased the number of field trial inspections conducted annually and improved the guidance, training and education for field test applicants, the person said.