Washington, D.C. — The potential importation of genetically modified (GM) food and commodities from other countries raises a number of issues for U.S. regulators, farmers, food processors and distributors, such as how the regulatory system will handle these products and whether the food and commodity system is prepared. With a number of countries developing their own GM crops including rice, soy and corn, it is only a matter of time before such products arrive on U.S. soil. These and other related issues were addressed by a group of panelists at a policy dialogue sponsored last week by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology entitled GM Imports: Implications for U.S. Biotechnology Policy. “While a great deal of attention has been paid to international trade in genetically engineered products, relatively little of it has been focused on the potential that products developed abroad may enter into the U.S marketplace,” said Michael Fernandez, executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. “With the continuing development of GM technology in other countries, we will certainly see GM crops harvested abroad finding their way into food products imported into the U.S. How the U.S. government and agribusiness respond to these new imports is a question now and clearly will be a challenge in the years ahead.”
Highlights of the Pew Initiative-sponsored policy dialogue included:
Joel Cohen, director of the program for biosafety systems at the International Food Policy Research Institute, which provides policy solutions that cut hunger and malnutrition, said that while it might be some time before developing countries export biotech foods to the United States, there is no doubt that research and development [of GM crops] is here to stay in developing countries. Cohen said biotech rice is being developed in China and the Philippines and other biotech products are being developed in Argentina, Brazil, India and South Africa. He identified intellectual property rights as a potential problem down the road for countries developing these technologies. “Large inputs of technologies being used in other countries comes from the Western world,” he said. “If these products come back to the U.S. where many patents are held for technologies, we will have problems.”
Mark Mansour, a partner at the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Morgan, Lewis and Bockius, LLP, said the U.S. must remain consistent in its approach to biotech products from other countries. “U.S. regulators maintain that our biotech exports are safe; it's going to be difficult for them to reject GM imports from other countries,” he said. “While the U.S. and EU have been battling it out on the trade front, the developing world has stolen the march in terms of developing biotech products.”
Gregory Jaffe, director of the biotechnology project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), an advocacy and educational organization that focuses on nutrition and health, food safety, alcohol policy, and sound science, pointed to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) voluntary consultation process as a potential stumbling block to U.S. regulation of GM imports. “I don't think this is the best way to protect consumers or to ensure the safety of foods,” he said. “In terms of imports, the companies in other countries may not understand that voluntary means mandatory. Imports will raise issues and test our regulatory system in a different way. Right now, there are no policies in place to address this.”
David Coia, vice president of communications at the USA Rice Federation, the national advocate for all segments of the rice industry, conducting activities to influence government programs, developing and initiating programs to increase worldwide demand for U.S. rice, said “USA Rice Federation does not support the commercialization of GM rice until these varieties have achieved consumer acceptance and regulatory approval in major markets.” According to Coia, half of the rice grown in the United States is exported to overseas markets. “Our producers would love to plant GM rice, but they fear the loss of markets,” he said.
The goal of the policy dialogue was to stimulate an informative discussion about how various industry sectors are preparing to address GM imports from other countries, and what, if any, U.S. government policies are in place to address these commodities. It was moderated by Michael Rodemeyer, former Executive Director of the Pew Initiative, who is currently serving the Initiative as a senior consultant.
About the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology
The Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research project whose goal is to inform the public and policymakers on issues about genetically modified food and agricultural biotechnology, including its importance, as well as concerns about it and its regulation. It is supported by a grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts to the University of Richmond.