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Biotech crop rules to get re-engineered

(Monday, Jan. 26, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY: When the U.S. Department of Agriculture revamps its regulations for bioengineered foods next year, the result is likely to be a significant shift in U.S. policy. "The science of biotechnology is continually evolving," Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said Thursday in announcing plans to update the rules, "so we must ensure that our regulatory framework remains robust by anticipating and keeping pace with those changes." Biotech plants have been genetically engineered to boost production, fight weeds, stand up to herbicides and even produce pharmaceutical and industrial chemicals. Since 1987, USDA has conducted more than 10,000 field trials of genetically engineered plants and organisms and approved 61 products, though fewer than 10 are in wide scale use by American farmers. Under existing regulations, companies creating these new plants must submit an application to USDA and undergo field tests to prove their creation doesn't introduce something that might pose a risk to other plants. The new rules would be broader, incorporating not just threats to plants and agriculture, but also to the environment and public health. One result would be the creation of a tiered system of regulations: Plants that aren't likely to escape into the wild, like soybeans and corn, or have genetically engineered traits such as herbicide resistance that USDA has lots of regulatory experience with, would be less stringently regulated. Food crops genetically modified to contain pharmaceutical or industrial chemicals would be more heavily regulated. The regulations also would likely allow USDA to continue to regulate some genetically engineered organisms considered high risk even after they have been cleared for commercial use. Greg Jaffe of the Center for Science in the Public Interest called the announcement "both welcome and unprecedented," though he is concerned about language that might allow USDA to exempt low-risk plants from the regulatory process. "If they do the positive things, clearly the system will be strengthened. But if they do the exemptions, they may be giving regulatory relief where it's not warranted," he said.