Industry-Friendly Approach to Regulating GMOs

Corn rootworm larva. Image by Marlin E. Rice.

The Economic Research Service (ERS), an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), in its second report, Genetically Engineered Crops in the United States, downplayed the impact of glyphosate resistance and gave Bt crops the kid gloves treatment.

The ERS Report barely acknowledged that Bt resistance is a growing concern. There was a mention of “some indication of emergence of Bt-resistant corn rootworm in some parts of the Corn Belt,” in a footnote.  The Report also noted that western corn rootworm larvae collected from Iowan Bt cornfields showed evidence of root damage confirming evidence of resistance which “raises concerns about regulatory compliance and continued need for minimum refuge requirements for Bt corn growers.”

Unlike USDA, however, other scientists express a deeper concern about Bt resistance. According to AgWeb, University extension entomologists report that field-based western corn rootworm (CRW) resistance to the Bt toxin Cry3Bb1 is now found in four states: Nebraska, Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota. Similarly, “[s]cientists in Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, New York, South Dakota and Wisconsin also are reporting significant damage in fields planted to corn hybrids containing the single Bt toxin,” though final confirmation is needed.

New research is also showing cross-resistance in rootworms, a situation where “rootworms that are resistant to Monsanto’s Bt toxin are also resistant to one of the two other rootworm Bt toxins, available from Syngenta,” described Gourian-Sherman, senior scientist at the Center for Food Safety. Mr. Sherman described Bt resistance as follows for CivilEats:

Rootworms in some areas are now resistant to two of the three available Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxins that previously controlled them. And because only one or two of these toxins are used per corn variety, a number of fields in the corn belt are now sustaining severe damage.

The ERS Report did not challenge or question the overall effectiveness of the U.S. regulatory system choosing instead to narrowly focus on concerns with “regulatory compliance” of growers.  Rather than directly requiring buffer zones, USDA tells a company registering for GMO approval to contractually require such zones in its agreement with farmers. In essence, the regulatory framework “mandates” companies to ask farmers  to plant less of the very same seeds the company is selling to farmers “as a condition of the registration of Bt corn and Bt cotton varieties for commercial use in the United States.”

Ironically, the ERS Report also gave its sister agency, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) a high five for this “mandate” stating that “[t]his is the first time regulations were used to manage resistance to a pest control technology.” Let’s not forget, however, that regulators at the EPA ignored the recommendation of its scientific panel who called for a 50 percent refuge and instead selected a 20 percent buffer zone when this issue was evaluated years ago.  More recently the mandated buffer zone shrunk to 5 percent for SmartStax corn.

As alluded to above, perhaps the biggest flaw in the Report is its uncritical, nay, congratulatory view of the regulatory system governing genetically engineered crops. Consider this self-affirming observation: “[t]hough the current regulatory system is considered to be effective, USDA, EPA and FDA update regulation as needed to address new trends and issues of the future.”

The splintered approach in which genetically engineered crops are regulated in the United States, a “patchwork quilt,” where old statutes written for entirely different purposes attempt to (haphazardly) regulate new technology, is hardly a cause for celebration. (Read more about systemic regulatory problems at the USDA here, here, here, at the EPA, and at the FDA).

The result of such lethargic regulatory mechanism is a system that favors the GMO makers.

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