PDF _ IB10109 - Agricultural Biotechnology: Overview and Selected Issues
7-Mar-2005; Geoffrey S. Becker; 20 p.

Update: April 12, 2005


The biotechnology industry and those in U.S. agriculture who support it continue to face challenges in winning acceptance of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). For example, U.S. officials are challenging in the World Trade Organization (WTO) a long-standing European Union (EU) moratorium on approvals of new GMO crops ? even though EU authorities now claim that the moratorium has ended with their approval, in May, of a GM variety of canned sweet corn imports. The EU followed this with another approval in July for a Monsanto GM corn as animal feed, but not for human consumption. (The US WTO challenge is still pending.) U.S. agricultural groups also are urging the Administration to bring a separate WTO case against the EU for what they say are its equally unfair and unworkable new rules for segregating and labeling GM foods, feeds, and crops. (At this writing, the Administration has not brought such a case.)

Market resistance may have contributed to a May 2004 decision by Monsanto to discontinue efforts to win regulatory approval of a genetically modified wheat variety.

On the other hand, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has given qualified support to agricultural biotechnology. FAO said in a May report that it can benefit the poor if farmers in developing countries could gain more access to it to complement other needed agricultural improvements.

At home, USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is reviewing public comments it received on its January 23, 2004, Federal Register notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) evaluating its biotechnology oversight regulations. Observers expect that the agency could propose a number of potentially major rule changes. APHIS intends to publish a draft EIS by the end of 2004.

Also, the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council released a report on the safety of genetically engineered foods in July 2004. The report concluded that federal agencies should assess any genetically altered food ? regardless of whether it is developed through GE or conventional cross-breeding ? on a case-by-case basis to determine whether the newly altered food is different enough (in terms of new compounds or levels of substances) to warrant further evaluation.

Congress continues to monitor closely all of these activities, and has passed resolutions supporting U.S. international efforts on agricultural biotechnology. In the FY2004 USDA appropriation, Congress increased funding both for U.S. international negotiations on biotechnology and for the department's office that regulates the field testing and commercialization of new GM crops. The Administration's FY2005 budget proposal requests $12 million for biotechnology regulation, 120% more than the FY2004 enacted level of $5.4 million. H.R. 4766, the agriculture appropriations bill passed by the House on July 13, 2004, provides $10.5 million. S. 2803, the agriculture appropriations bill reported by the Senate Appropriations Committee on September 14, 2004, provides $5.5 million.

Previous Updates:

Abstract: Since the first genetically engineered(GE) crops (also known as GM (genetically modified) crops, or GMOs, genetically modified organisms) became commercially available in the mid-1990s, U.S. soybean, cotton, and corn farmers have rapidly adopted them. As adoption has spread, the policy debate over costs and benefits has intensified.

Issues include the impacts of GE crops on the environment and food safety, and whether GE foods should be specially labeled. Underlying these issues is the question of whether U.S. regulation and oversight of biotechnology ? with responsibilities spread primarily among the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ? remain appropriate, particularly as newer applications (e.g., biopharmaceuticals ? drugs manufactured with the use of GE crops or animals) emerge that did not exist when the current regulatory regime was established. Relatedly, USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service published a notice of intent January 23, 2004, to prepare an environmental impact statement evaluating its rules.

Some U.S. agricultural export markets, notably the European Union (EU), have taken a more restrictive approach to regulating agricultural biotechnology than the United States, presenting obstacles for U.S. farm exports. Now before the World Trade Organization (WTO) is a U.S. complaint regarding the EU's de facto moratorium, in place since 1998, on approvals of new GE crops. Even though the EU says it has ended its moratorium(by approving in May a GE variety of canned sweet corn for import), U.S. agricultural interests are concerned that new, stricter EU rules for labeling and tracing GE products, now taking effect, will continue to discriminate against U.S. exports. Also, there is debate over whether agricultural biotechnology will improve (according to proponents)or undermine (according to opponents) food security in eveloping countries.

Congress generally has been supportive of GE agricultural products, although some Members have expressed wariness about their adoption and regulation. The 109th Congress will likely continue to follow trade developments, particularly the U.S.-EU dispute, as well as U.S. regulatory mechanisms for approving biotech foods. This CRS report, which will not be updated unless significant policy changes occur, replaces CRS Issue Brief IB10131, agricultural Biotechnology: Overview and Selected Issues. For additional information about agriculture and biotechnology, contact Tadlock Cowan, Analyst in Agricultural Policy, at (202) 707-7600.

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Topics: Agriculture, Economics & Trade, International

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