The U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced a tightening of regulations on field trials of genetically engineered wheat. From January, developers will be required to apply for a permit, and USDA can enforce conditions that minimize the chance of experimental crops escaping into the environment. The changes come after unlicensed GE wheat was found growing in fields in Oregon and Montana in 2013 and 2014.
Dr. Jeff Wolt, Professor of Agronomy & Toxicology, Biosafety Institute for Genetically Modified Agricultural Products, Iowa State University (webpage):
Expertise: Biotechnology safety analysis applied to risk management and science policy decision-making.
“The recent decision by USDA-APHIS to increase oversight of GE wheat field trials by requiring permits rather than notification is prudent given the reason for unauthorized occurrence of GE wheat in Oregon and Montana has not been determined. This move by APHIS will help assure trading partners that the US regulatory system is vigilant with regard to experimental trials with GE crops. In this instance, it has been determined that there is sufficient scientific uncertainty regarding wheat seed dormancy to require a more cautious approach to field trial management, and that can best be achieved through the permitting process.
“The move to a permit process for GE wheat will make field trials more expensive and resource intense to conduct, but not in a way that should encumber research. While research with various GE wheat traits is ongoing throughout the world, there is little movement for commercial development of GE wheat for the US because of grower concerns over export market acceptance. The overall impact on research, however, may be quite significant, as the current USDA-APHIS-BRS notifications database shows numerous notifications for GE wheat field trials in 2015 (https://www.aphis.usda.gov/brs/status/notday.html).
“Since the underlying reason for the occurrence of unauthorized GE wheat in Oregon and Montana is not known, there is no certainty that a move from a notification to a permitting process will eliminate this type of occurrence in the future. However, with the conditions imposed through a permitting process, there is reasonable assurance that escapes from field trials will be minimized.”
Dr. P. Stephen Baenziger, Professor and Nebraska Wheat Growers Presidential Chair, University of Nebraska (webpage):
Expertise: Developing improved breeding methodology and the use of biotechnology. Dr. Baenziger is the primary small grains breeder at the University of Nebraska.
“Maintaining the integrity and reputation of the U.S. wheat supply, especially in export markets, is critical to our growers and customers. As such, the recent actions of APHIS are fully understood. Clearly there were unfortunately lapses in the research protocols that led to unauthorized growing of regulated material in two incidents in Oregon and Montana. The Oregon incident is perplexing as there has been no link to previous trials at the site and how the incident occurred is still unknown. It is difficult to regulate an unexplained incident. The Montana incident is on a site where there was a trial of regulated wheat, and it is presumed that dormant seed survived years after the monitoring period ended. So in this case, the belief is that the monitoring period was inadequate and the requirements of the notification process were not met; hence the change in APHIS policy.
“While the change in policy is completely understood, it should be remembered that for years researchers have tested regulated wheat and have met all of the necessary requirements for safe experimentation. The incidents that led to the change in policy are fortunately rare, but they did occur. It is hoped that as the wheat industry and APHIS work together to develop the permit protocols that will ensure safe experimentation, that recognition will be given to the biology and diversity of wheat that can aid in providing the safest experimentation possible.”
Declared interests (see GENeS register of interests policy):
Dr Jeff Wolt: “I was formerly employed by Dow AgroSciences from 1988-2003. Currently I have no financial relationship, voluntary appointments or advisory capacity with the agricultural industry.”
Dr. P. Stephen Baenziger: “My research is funded by numerous sources from federal and state grants, grower check-off dollars, royalties on my cultivars, and collaborations with industry (seed companies, chemical companies, and millers and baking companies). Currently, I am not doing transgenic research.”