The U.S. Food and Drug Administration introduced a pilot project in the Federal Register this month which would allow biotech seed companies to perform their own environmental impact studies of novel seed varieties before deregulation.
The USDA's move seems to be a response to a decision last August by Federal Judge Jeffrey White which banned the planting of genetically modified sugar beets until an environmental study assessed the impact of commercial cultivation. White ruled that the USDA's approval of the beets violated the National Environmental Policy Act.
Proponents of the USDA's project believe the decision will make the biotech industry less vulnerable to legal challenges and speed the registration process of new GE crops. "A big deterrent to future lawsuits would be if the USDA were to win some of them," said Karen Batra, director of communications at Biotechnology Industry Organization, to Capital Press. "The more information the department has, the better case they can make."
Most recently The Center for Food Safety challenged the USDA's unregulated approval of GE-alfalfa saying the decision puts organic and conventional farmers at risk. The case is pending.
Organic advocates believe the USDA's pilot will slow what they believe to be an already ineffective process and encourage more legal challenges.
"There's virtually no chance, in the current political climate, that the idea of expanding the role of biotech is going to speed up approval," said Chuck Benbrook, chief scientist for The Organic Center. "The fact of the matter is there are many good reasons not to trust science from Monsanto. Almost inevitably the first assessments carried out under this pilot program will be challenged in court—probably successfully."
Bill Freese, science policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety, said the USDA's proposal would make an already poor process worse.
"This decision would give us additional incentive to challenge a seed up for deregulation, subject to other factors," he said. "We might actually challenge the process itself. This decision seems to go against some pretty basic scientific integrity guidelines. Letting a company do its own assessment is a pretty obvious conflict of interest."
Natural products retailers believe the USDA's move gives them even more incentive to educate consumers on the negative effects of GMOs and band together to fight the deregulation of more GE crops.
"We need a huge consumer campaign like we did when we passed DSHEA to galvanize consumers who are very confused and do not understand the ramifications of GMOs," said Cheryl Hughes, owner of Whole Wheatery in Lancaster, Calif. "We can't rely on the federal government to make the best decisions for our health and environment."