The processes by which different countries regulate genetically modified crops vary, which can lead to billions of dollars in disrupted trade.
Differing regulations led to a huge corn kerfuffle between China and the United States in 2013. U.S. regulators had approved a new GM trait from Syngenta, which sold seeds containing that trait to American farmers. But when the corn arrived at Chinese ports and regulators there found the trait, they rejected all U.S. corn because China had not yet approved the trait. American farmers now allege the stoppage cost them dearly.
Lawyers are lining up farmers for a possible class-action lawsuit against Syngenta, while government officials try to figure out how to level the regulatory playing field.
With that background, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) wanted to know what the United States policy is for importing genetically modified crops from other countries.
“What I really want to know here is, what is our own government’s policy?” he said, “because I think we have to have a consistent policy within our own government.”
Grassley told reporters Tuesday that after calling five different federal agencies he had no clear answer.
He says an official at one agency told him the United States doesn’t inspect imports for biotech products “because we do not believe they pose any risk.” Someone else pointed him to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In addition to the FDA, Grassley reached out to the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection and three separate agencies within the USDA: Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, Federal Grain Inspection Service, and Foreign Agricultural Service.
The FDA regulates the safety of foods derived from genetically engineered plants. However, Grassley’s regulatory survey points to the dizzying array of regulatory bodies that may need to be consulted on any trade issue.
Grassley’s interest in the U.S. policy stems from a desire to reach a worldwide agreement on trade in GM commodities. He says right now some countries have a zero-tolerance policy for any GM traits their own regulators have not approved. Until an American policy can be stated clearly, the U.S. is not in a good position to negotiate.
“We ought to have a coherent policy so that we have an intellectually honest approach when we challenge other countries,” Grassley said.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has previously called upon China to get on the same page as the U.S. when it comes to approving new GM traits and earlier this year hinted at bilateral talks with China on the issue.
Grassley says getting biotech regulations “correct” is important for the present and the future of global trade. It’s also important for farm state constituents who don’t want to be caught with millions of bushels of grain unsold.