The Federal Government developed a Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology in 1986 to provide for the regulatory oversight of organisms derived through genetic engineering. The three principal agencies that have provided primary guidance to the experimental testing, approval, and eventual commercial release of these organisms to date are the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The approach taken in the Coordinated Framework is grounded in the judgment of the National Academy of Sciences that the potential risks associated with these organisms fall into the same general categories as those created by traditionally bred organisms.
Products are regulated according to their intended use, with some products being regulated under more than one agency. All government regulatory agencies have a responsibility to ensure that the implementation of regulatory decisions, including approval of field tests and eventual deregulation of approved biotech crops, does not adversely impact human health or the environment.
The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is responsible for protecting U.S. agriculture from pests and diseases. APHIS regulations provide procedures for obtaining a permit or for providing notification prior to “”introducing”” (the act of introducing includes any movement into or through the U.S., or release into the environment outside an area of physical confinement) a regulated article in the U.S. Regulated articles are organisms and products altered or produced through genetic engineering that are plant pests or for which there is reason to believe are plant pests.
The regulations also provide for a petition process for the determination of non-regulated status. Once a determination of non-regulated status has been made, the organism (and its offspring) no longer requires APHIS review for movement or release in the U.S.
The USDA also helps industry respond to consumer demands in the United States and overseas by supporting the marketing of a wide range of agricultural products produced through conventional, organic, and genetically engineered means.
The Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) and the Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) have developed a number of services to facilitate the strategic marketing of conventional and genetically engineered foods, fibers, grains, and oilseeds in both domestic and international markets. GIPSA provides these services for the bulk grain and oilseed markets while AMS provides the services for food commodities such as fruits and vegetables, as well as for fiber commodities.
These services include:
1. Evaluation of Test Kits: AMS and GIPSA evaluate commercially available test kits designed to detect the presence of specific proteins in genetically engineered agricultural commodities. The agencies confirm whether the tests operate in accordance with manufacturers’ claims and, if the kits operate as stated, the results are made available to the public on their respective websites.
GIPSA evaluates the performance of laboratories conducting DNA-based tests to detect genetically engineered grains and oilseeds, provides participants with their individual results, and posts a summary report on the GIPSA website. AMS is developing a similar program that can evaluate and verify the capabilities of independent laboratories to screen other products for the presence of genetically engineered material.
2. Identity Preservation/Process Verification Services: AMS and GIPSA offer auditing services to certify the use of written quality practices and/or production processes by producers who differentiate their commodities using identity preservation, testing, and product branding.
Additional AMS Services: AMS provides fee-based DNA and protein testing services for food and fiber products, and its Plant Variety Protection Office offers intellectual property rights protection for new genetically engineered seed varieties through the issuance of Certificates of Protection.
Additional GIPSA Services: GIPSA provides marketing documents pertaining to whether there are genetically engineered varieties of certain bulk commodities in commercial production in the United States. USDA also works to improve and expand market access for U.S. agricultural products, including those produced through genetic engineering.
The Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) supports or administers numerous education, outreach, and exchange programs designed to improve the understanding and acceptance of genetically engineered agricultural products worldwide
1. Market Access Program and Foreign Market Development Program: Supports U.S. farm producer groups (called “”Cooperators””) to market agricultural products overseas, including those produced using genetic engineering.
2. Emerging Markets Program: Supports technical assistance activities to promote exports of U.S. agricultural commodities and products to emerging markets, including those produced using genetic engineering. Activities to support science-based decision-making are also undertaken. Such activities have included food safety training in Mexico, a biotechnology course for emerging market participants at Michigan State University, farmer-to-farmer workshops in the Philippines and Honduras, high-level policy discussions within the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group, as well as numerous study tours and workshops involving journalists, regulators, and policy-makers.
3. Cochran Fellowship Program: Supports short-term training in biotechnology and genetic engineering. Since the program was created in 1984, the Cochran Fellowship Program has provided education and training to 325 international participants, primarily regulators, policy makers, and scientists.
4. Borlaug Fellowship Program: Supports collaborative research in new technologies, including biotechnology and genetic engineering. Since the program was established in 2004, the Borlaug Fellowship Program has funded 193 fellowships in this research area.
5. Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops (TASC): Supports technical assistance activities that address sanitary, phytosanitary, and technical barriers that prohibit or threaten the export of U.S. specialty crops. This program has supported activities on biotech papaya.
USDA researchers seek to solve major agricultural problems and to better understand the basic biology of agriculture. Researchers may use biotechnology to conduct research more efficiently and to discover things that may not be possible by more conventional means. This includes introducing new or improved traits in plants, animals, and microorganisms and creating new biotechnology-based products such as more effective diagnostic tests, improved vaccines, and better antibiotics. Any USDA research involving the development of new biotechnology products includes biosafety analysis.
USDA scientists are also improving biotechnology tools for ever safer, more effective use of biotechnology by all researchers. For example, better models are being developed to evaluate genetically engineered organisms and to reduce allergens in foods.
USDA researchers monitor for potential environmental problems such as insect pests becoming resistant to Bt, a substance that certain crops, such as corn and cotton, have been genetically engineered to produce to protect against insect damage. In addition, in partnership with the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and the Forest Service, the Cooperative States Research, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) administers the Biotechnology Risk Assessment Research Grants Program (BRAG) which develops science-based information regarding the safety of introducing genetically engineered plants, animals, and microorganisms. Lists of biotechnology research projects can be found at https://www.ars.usda.gov/research/projects.htm for ARS and at https://www.nifa.usda.gov/funding-opportunity/biotechnology-risk-assessment-research-grants-program-brag for NIFA.
USDA also develops and supports centralized websites that provide access to genetic resources and genomic information about agricultural species. Making these databases easily accessible is crucial for researchers around the world.
USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) provides funding and program leadership for extramural research, higher education, and extension activities in food and agricultural biotechnology. NIFA administers and manages funds for biotechnology through a variety of competitive and cooperative grants programs. The National Research Initiative (NRI) Competitive Grants Program, the largest NIFA competitive program, supports basic and applied research projects and integrated research, education, and/or extension projects, many of which use or develop biotechnology tools, approaches, and products. The Small Business Innovation Research Program (SBIR) funds competitive grants to support research by qualified small businesses on advanced concepts related to scientific problems and opportunities in agriculture, including development of biotechnology-derived products. NIFA also supports research involving biotechnology and biotechnology-derived products through cooperative funding programs in conjunction with state agricultural experiment stations at land-grant universities. NIFA partners with other federal agencies through interagency competitive grant programs to fund agricultural and food research that uses or develops biotechnology and biotechnology tools such as metabolic engineering, microbial genome sequencing, and maize genome sequencing.
USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) conducts research on the economic aspects of the use of genetically engineered organisms, including the rate of and reasons for adoption of biotechnology by farmers. ERS also addresses economic issues related to the marketing, labeling, and trading of biotechnology-derived products.