The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines agricultural biotechnology as “a range of tools, including traditional breeding techniques, that alter living organisms, or parts of organisms, to make or modify products; improve plants or animals; or develop microorganisms for specific agricultural uses. Modern biotechnology today includes the tools of genetic engineering.” The breath and variety of the plants, animals and other products currently available on the market that fit this definition is truly impressive, especially considering the relatively short time since biotech products were introduced, and their relatively high cost of development.
Since biotech seeds first appeared on the market approximately 15 years ago, debate has raged on topics ranging from environmental impact to labeling and proper use and just about everything in between. What’s interesting though, is despite the length of time that biotechnology has been used in the U.S. and around the world, the large percentage of acreage utilizing the technology and the dramatic impact on the U.S. crop production industry, scrutiny of the use of biotechnology in food production has remained steady. Increasingly, those who challenge the introduction of biotechnology have turned to litigation to challenge the regulatory approval and use of biotech products.
Cases challenging regulatory approval of biotech alfalfa and sugar beets have made headlines over the past year. So 15 years later, where are we really when it comes to use and the regulatory process for the approval of biotech plant products? We’ll take a quick look at some of the current issues facing the industry, including the animal feed industry and international markets, and review some of the most recent litigation.
Use of biotech crops
Biotechnology has already had a significant impact on several major U.S. crops including, corn, soybean, cotton, canola, sugar beet, alfalfa, papaya, and squash. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, between 85% and 95% of the corn, cotton, soybeans and sugar beets grown in the United States are genetically engineered (GE).
While the first GE crops were developed with goals of reducing use of chemicals such as insecticides or herbicides and for specific related traits, companies are now looking toward developing GE crops resistant to environmental conditions. This could expand the land available for agricultural growing purposes, as well as potentially reduce yield losses that occur each year due to drought or other inclement weather. Other crops are also being developed with the goal of enabling animals to more effectively use the nutrients found in animal feed.
Considering the amount of corn, soybeans, alfalfa and other crops that are used in the feed industry, biotech has had a major impact on the U.S. feed industry — bringing with it a number of challenges.
Rules, regulations and legal challenges
International acceptance of GE crops continues to be one of the major challenges facing the industry. As noted above, the majority of biotech crops are grown in the U.S. Europe maintains a strict, and slow, approval process for biotech crops, and currently allows only a few varieties. They have a zero tolerance policy for the presence of unauthorized GM material in food, and a “technical zero” of 0.1% for the presence of unauthorized material in imported feed. This presents challenges to those exporting feed products to Europe, as not only must feed and grain be segregated, in most cases, to keep GE and non-GE feed crops separate, but a distinction must also be made between approved and non-approved GE crops.
But other issues may lead to more questions for feed exporters, such as concern over cross-pollination and the potential for unapproved (or any) genetic material to be detected in what was designated as a GE-free crop. The essentially zero tolerance for the presence of unauthorized material severely limits the feed that can be exported. This is causing some in the EU to call for an increase in the speed of authorizing GM products for use in animal feed, as there is a real concern over a feed shortage in parts of the EU.