Breeders have been evaluating new products developed through agricultural biotechnology for centuries. In addition to these efforts, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) work to ensure that crops produced through genetic engineering for commercial use are properly tested and studied to make sure they pose no significant risk to consumers or the environment.
Crops produced through genetic engineering are the only ones formally reviewed to assess the potential for transfer of novel traits to wild relatives. When new traits are genetically engineered into a crop, the new plants are evaluated to ensure that they do not have characteristics of weeds. Where biotech crops are grown in proximity to related plants, the potential for the two plants to exchange traits via pollen must be evaluated before release. Crop plants of all kinds can exchange traits with their close wild relatives (which may be weeds or wildflowers) when they are in proximity. In the case of biotech-derived crops, the EPA and USDA perform risk assessments to evaluate this possibility and minimize potential harmful consequences, if any.
Other potential risks considered in the assessment of genetically engineered organisms include any environmental effects on birds, mammals, insects, worms, and other organisms, especially in the case of insect or disease resistance traits. This is why the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and the EPA review any environmental impacts of such pest-resistant biotechnology derived crops prior to approval of field-testing and commercial release. Testing on many types of organisms such as honeybees, other beneficial insects, earthworms, and fish is performed to ensure that there are no unintended consequences associated with these crops.
With respect to food safety, when new traits introduced to biotech-derived plants are examined by the EPA and the FDA, the proteins produced by these traits are studied for their potential toxicity and potential to cause an allergic response. Tests designed to examine the heat and digestive stability of these proteins, as well as their similarity to known allergenic proteins, are completed prior to entry into the food or feed supply. To put these considerations in perspective, it is useful to note that while the particular biotech traits being used are often new to crops in that they often do not come from plants (many are from bacteria and viruses), the same basic types of traits often can be found naturally in most plants. These basic traits, like insect and disease resistance, have allowed plants to survive and evolve over time.