Audit: USDA disregards GMO field trial problems

Published online: Oct 23, 2015 News

USDA’s biotechnology regulators don’t take past non-compliance problems into account when approving new field trials for regulated genetically engineered crops, according to an internal audit.

The agency’s Office of Inspector General found that eight unnamed biotech developers continued to be allowed to conduct field trials despite 260 non-compliance incidents over the past two years.

Companies and universities are allowed to test biotech crops in the field as long as they follow protocols to prevent the escape of traits that haven’t been deregulated by USDA.

The agency either issues permits to biotech developers or, under a streamlined process, acknowledges their notifications that field trials will occur.

Auditors found one instance where an organization was repeatedly allowed to conduct field trials even though it was cited for 122 incidents, including failing to “devitalize” the crops, having the crops persist in the environment and moving them without authorization.

“Biotechnologists were not, however, using this compliance history when they reviewed and approved new applications for permits and notifications,” the audit said.

Officials from the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service told auditors that if they’re aware of past problems, the biotech developers may be subject to stricter field trials requirements or encouraged withdraw their applications.

The biotech industry also engages in “self-policing” by ceasing to use farmer “cooperators” who fail to follow protocols when growing the crops, APHIS officials told auditors.

In response to the audit, APHIS said that staff members who oversee the compliance program have begun meeting with personnel responsible for issuing permits and acknowledging notifications.

The agency agreed to begin considering non-compliance problems when approving field trials, the APHIS response letter said.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization, which represents developers, did not have staff available to discuss the USDA audit but a spokesperson said the group was reviewing the report.

The Center for Food Safety, a non-profit that’s critical of USDA’s biotech oversight, is disturbed such problems still haven’t been fixed 10 years after a similarly critical audit was released by the OIG.

“APHIS doesn’t have a handle on what is being planted out there,” said Bill Freese, the group’s science policy analyst.

A history of non-compliance with field testing protocols should carry sanctions, he said. “If people keep violating the field trial regulations with no consequence, they have no incentive to improve.”

Aside from the non-compliance issues, the audit found numerous other problems with USDA’s biotechnology program, such as its failure to update regulations 15 years after Congress granted APHIS additional authority over genetically engineered crops, he said.

Freese said the agency’s “cozy relationship” with biotech developers—rather than financial constraints—is the real reason for this delay.

“APHIS is resistant to having really thorough systems in place because it would force them to do a lot more compliance and they don’t want to issue more sanctions,” he said.