A gray area in regulation of genetically modified crops

Posted: January 5, 2015 at 11:47 am

Its first attempt to develop genetically engineered grass ended disastrously for Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. The grass escaped into the wild from test plots in Oregon in 2003, dooming the chances that the government would approve the product for commercial use.

Yet Scotts is once again developing genetically modified grass that would need less mowing, be a deeper green and be resistant to damage from the popular weedkiller Roundup. But this time the grass will not need federal approval before it can be field-tested and marketed.

Scotts and several other companies are developing genetically modified crops using techniques that either are outside the jurisdiction of the Agriculture Department or use new methods like genome editing that were not envisioned when the regulations were created.

The department has said, for example, that it has no authority over a new herbicide-resistant canola, or over a corn that would create less pollution from livestock waste, or switch grass tailored for biofuel production, or an ornamental plant that glows in the dark.

The trend alarms critics of biotech crops, who say there can be unintended effects of genetic modification, regardless of the process.

"They are using a technical loophole so that what are clearly genetically engineered crops and organisms are escaping regulation," said Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at Consumers Union. He said the grass "can have all sorts of ecological impact, and no one is required to look at it."

'Obsolete' regulation

Even some people who say the crops are safe and the regulations overly burdensome have expressed concern that because some crops can be left unregulated, the whole oversight process is confusing and illogical, in some cases doing more harm than good.

In November's Nature Biotechnology, plant researchers at the University of California, Davis wrote that the regulatory framework had become "obsolete and an obstacle to the development of new agricultural products."

But companies using the new techniques say that if the methods were not labeled genetic engineering, novel crops could be marketed or grown in Europe and other countries that do not readily accept genetically modified crops.

A gray area in regulation of genetically modified crops

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