USDA Revives Effort to Update Biotechnology Rules


May 14, 2015 – A long-stalled effort to update federal rules regulating genetically-engineered organisms in agriculture has been revived by the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which is encouraging public input on the issue through June 22, 2015.

In February the agency formally withdrew proposed regulations that were published in 2008, but never finalized, largely due to an avalanche of more than 88,000 comments submitted by stakeholders. The proposed rules would have amended existing regulations regarding the introduction, importation, interstate movement, and environmental release of certain genetically engineered organisms in the U.S.

The 2008 proposal served as a flashpoint between biotechnology interests and other farming groups, and AHPIS was deluged with conflicting concerns from stakeholders. In general, biotech interests argued that the rules on genetically-modified organisms were overly restrictive, and skeptics, including organic producers and consumers, and growers of valuable “identity preserved” crops, pressed for a more cautious regulatory approach.

APHIS eventually threw in the towel and announced it would scrap the seven-year-old proposal to “begin fresh stakeholder engagement aimed at exploring alternative policy approaches,” according to a press release. 

Existing APHIS biotechnology regulations were enacted in 1987, and the last major revision took place in 1993, lagging a biotech industry that has grown exponentially in size and influence in the intervening decades. 

Organic farming advocates say action on the issue is welcome, but pressed for a timely process that will result in strong regulations requiring the biotechnology industry to share responsibility for genetic and pesticide drift that contaminates neighboring crops, reduces their value, and in some cases sets them up for lawsuits charging the victims of contamination with ‘unlicensed use’ of the genetic drift.

The agency scheduled a series of three public webinars to gather feedback from stakeholders, with the final session scheduled for May 20th, and is encouraging those with extensive or technical comments to submit written statements. The first webinar hosted 45 participants from 17 states and the District of Columbia.

OFRF Executive Director Brise Tencer urged organic farmers, researchers and consumers to weigh in on the process.

“The careless release of genetically modified organisms into the environment has already caused serious contamination issues for organic farmers, decimated biodiversity and created new varieties of pesticide-resistant insects and weeds,” Tencer said. “Regulators need to take the needs of organic producers seriously, and we need to let them know what those concerns are.”

For detailed information on how to comment and participate in the revision process, go to The final webinar is scheduled for Wednesday, May 20, 4-7 pm EDT. Those wishing to make a written comment of greater length are encouraged to do so through June 22, 2015, at

APHIS has created a webpage,, to serve as an ongoing resource to keep stakeholders apprised of opportunities to comment and participate

The webinars are intended to collect feedback on the following questions:

1. Should APHIS regulate based on the characteristics of biotechnology products and the potential risks they may pose, or by the process by which they were created?  In either case, what criteria should be used to determine what APHIS regulates? Are there products and processes APHIS should not regulate?

 2. The Plant Protection Act gives APHIS the authority to protect plant health through regulatory programs. APHIS has implemented the plant pest authority as part of their biotechnology regulations.  Should APHIS add noxious weed provisions to their to biotechnology regulations and if so, how?  What protection goals should APHIS consider?

3. Are there legal authorities given to USDA outside the Plant Protection Act that APHIS should examine to regulate or oversee the products of biotechnology? What are they, and how would they be used?

4. What non-regulatory solutions or policy alternatives could or should be considered to complement APHIS’s regulatory program?

Maria Gaura - OFRF